United Kingdom Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust: Bryan Hymel (Faust); Karen Cargill (Marguerite); Christopher Purves (Méphistophélès); Gábor Bretz (Brander); Tiffin Boys’ Choir; Tiffin Girls’ Choir; London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 7.9.2017. (CC)
Continuing the This is Rattle series, a celebration of Sir Simon’s arrival in London at the helm of the LSO, this was clearly a major event. A choir in the foyer prior to the performance added to the special “feel” of the evening; the programme booklet is lush. Even the double-basses have new “Resonanzio” podiums, advertised in the brochure with a quote from Sir Simon that the podiums are “rich in overtones … a real treat!”. Microphones were everywhere in evidence on the stage and just beyond. In a time of all-enveloping doubt in the world, it’s good to have such positivity.
It was interesting that we had Berlioz’s Faust masterpiece so soon after Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s performance at the Proms (review). There, the orchestra was the period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; here it was the very modern-instrumented LSO. If some of the rawness of Gardiner’s forces was inevitably cushioned by the modern instruments, this remained a splendid performance, orchestrally, with detail galore and a band that was set on playing its heart out for its new leader. String ensemble in particular was a miracle (the “Song of the Flea” being a case in point). Rattle is an old hand at ratcheting up the temperature in tandem with dynamics, and so it was here: climaxes were overpowering, the London Symphony Chorus on fine form. The orchestral blossoming in the first scene was a thing of wonder. Offstage trumpet fanfares at the outset of the third part were phenomenal; the only eyebrow-raising moment was some unnecessary point-making at the onset of the Hungarian March in Part I.
Bryan Hymel was a good if not outstanding Faust in his long scenes in solitude; perhaps his suffering at the outset of Part II was not quite believable. This was not quite the heroic, involved assumption expected of someone who has made such a reputation from Robert le Diable: it will be interesting to see how he fares in the upcoming Les vêpres siciliennes at Covent Garden where he will take the role of Henri.
Christopher Purves stood in for an indisposed Gerald Finley. It was a good if not outstanding account of the role, perhaps not properly diabolical and certainly not as involving as that of Laurent Naouri over at the Proms in the Summer. For sure, no-one could smell sulphur. Purves’ “Je suis vainqueur!” was his finest moment of the performance. By far the greatest of the soloists though was Karen Cargill as Marguerite, sounding perfect for the role from her very first note: focused sound yet absolutely beautiful to experience. Fragile, innocent and therefore quite rightly borne up by the Seraphim to Heaven at the end (more on that in a moment), this was Berlioz singing at the very highest level.
Gábor Bretz gave Brander’s Song with only medium character; his head was buried in the score. Nice to see him conducting the drunken choral fugue that follows along with Rattle though! The chorus excelled, whether in nimble passages, light female-dominated textures or the odd infernal fugue. Orchestrally, perhaps the exceptional viola solos of Alexander Zemtsov in the “Ballad of the King of Thule” merit a spotlight of their own, but one has to acknowledge overall that this was the London Symphony Orchestra at its very best.
The children’s choruses (the Tiffin Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs) sang radiantly. One aspect of Berlioz’s scoring, though, is space; and if anyone was wondering how Rattle fitted them on an already full stage, well, he didn’t. They processed in from the back doors of the stalls and took up the passageways leading down to the stage on each side. So, I have no idea how transported Cargill looked at the end (I would have seen her if she actually had ascended to Heaven, in fairness). The boys and girls stayed in place when the music finished, too, leaving those early exiters with a quandary of whether to fight their way to the doors or to miss their train and endure the applause.
The enthusiasm of the response might in itself answer that problem. In a sense, Berlioz has come home, given Sir Colin Davis’ performances of that composer with this orchestra. As for the ongoing celebrations of Rattle’s arrival, long may they continue. Could this be a new Golden Era for the LSO?