United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Berlioz: Susan Bickley (Marguerite), Peter Hoare (Faust), Christopher Purves (Méphistophélès), David Ireland (Brander), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Choristers of Gloucester Cathedral, Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 27.7.2019. (JQ)
Berlioz – La damnation de Faust
I’ve been listening to La damnation de Faust quite a lot in recent months because three very different recordings have come my way to review: a live recording, dating from 2017. conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (review); an historic account under the baton of Igor Markevitch (review); and most recently, a DVD of a very fine live performance in which the period instrument orchestre Les Siècles was conducted by François-Xavier Roth. All this exposure to La damnation has reminded me what a fantastic and imaginative score it is. It’s as dramatic as any of the Berlioz operas, though La damnation is on a much more compressed scale that either Benvenuto Cellini or Les Troyens. It has to be admitted that at times Berlioz took a rather freewheeling approach to Goethe’s tale, not least in inventing a march past by Hungarian soldiers, seemingly for no better reason than to enable him to insert the brilliant Râkóczy March. However, whatever reservations one may have about the episodic nature of the libretto pales into insignificance when set against the quality of the musical invention. The music is very varied, ranging from scenes of boisterous carousing, through tender introspection (‘L’amour de l’ardente flamme’) to the terrific excitement of the Ride to the Abyss. Berlioz let his imagination run riot in this work, not least in his very colourful and often innovative orchestral scoring. Listening to those three recordings – and to other versions which I enlisted for comparative purposes – has also reminded me how fiendishly demanding the work is in many places, not least for the chorus, who are called upon to essay a variety of roles, and for the conductor who has not just to hold the whole thing together but also to project the music with verve and dramatic force. So, it was a daring choice for the first of the main evening concerts in Gloucester Cathedral at the 2019 Three Choirs Festival. It was also an event to which I’d been looking forward keenly ever since I learned that the work was to be on the programme.
So far as I know, this is only the second time that La damnation de Faust has been given at Three Choirs. I learned from the indispensable The Three Choirs Festival. A History by Anthony Boden and Paul Hedley that the work’s previous outing came in 1998 when David Briggs conducted a performance with a solo team that included Roderick Williams, no less, in the cameo role of Brander. The solo team tonight was a strong one with Susan Bickley, a Festival regular, as Marguerite and two male principals with considerable experience of their respective roles. Christopher Purves came to Gloucester fresh from a run of performances in a staged version for Glyndebourne earlier this summer (review). He also sang the role of Méphistophélès on the Rattle recording, referenced above. Both he and Peter Hoare performed in what seems to have been, from the production side of things, a pretty unfortunate staging (in English) by ENO in 2011 (review). All this experience – including that of essaying their roles together – was in evidence tonight. When I learned that La damnation would be on the Festival programme, I wondered if Francophone soloists might be engaged. That didn’t happen, but tonight’s all-British team of soloists seemed completely comfortable singing in French, as did the Festival Chorus.
Peter Hoare doesn’t have the sweetest of voices; in fact, there’s something of an edge to his tone, which helped the voice to carry in this resonant acoustic. Arguably, he didn’t bring out the lyrical side of Faust as fully as some tenors I’ve heard, for example in ‘Merci, doux crépuscule’, though that was sung expressively. On the other hand, he was well equipped to portray the anguished, impassioned side of Faust’s character and that’s the aspect that is particularly to the fore in Berlioz’s setting: after all, as Gwilym Bowen suggested in his excellent programme note, there’s more than a hint of autobiography in the Faustian character as developed by Berlioz. The role is a cruelly demanding one but Hoare delivered it extremely well, even if there were one or two occasions, principally in the duet with Marguerite in Part III, when he sounded taxed by the unreasonably high tessitura. He brought powerful intensity to the ‘Invocation à la Nature’ in Part IV, the dark brooding accompaniment from the Philharmonia adding significantly to the drama at this point. Hoare was ardent in the duet with Marguerite and he played a full part in the vivid characterisation of Faust’s interactions with Méphistophélès. Overall, this was a thoroughly convincing assumption of the role of Faust, though I must say that I found Mr Hoare’s hand gestures overdone and distracting, especially his habit of holding his right hand up to his face as one sometimes sees singers do in rehearsal. That said, his immersion in Faust’s character and the conviction with which he portrayed the doomed doctor was never in doubt.
The character of Marguerite is less prominent overall, though she has two notable arias, one each in Parts III and IV. Susan Bickley is a highly experienced artist and she sang very well tonight. ‘Le roi de Thulé’ was put across very pleasingly – and the performance was further enhanced by the plaintive contribution of the solo viola (Nicholas Bootiman, I presume). ‘L’amour de l’ardente flamme’ was also a success. Here, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Mss Bickley at the very top of her vocal compass but there was ample compensation to be had from the lovely, full tone elsewhere in her register and the fine sense of line. This aria, too, benefitted from a significant orchestral contribution, this time the gently plangent cor anglais of Jill Crowther. In between these two important solos, Susan Bickley made a passionate partner for Peter Hoare’s Faust in the Part III duet.
The small role of Brander is a bit of a thankless one. The singer has to sit there for about half an hour, deliver one relatively short solo and then he’s done for the evening. Since Brander is essentially a cheerleader for the revellers in Auerbach’s bierkeller I wonder if Berlioz expected a member of the bass section to step forward from the choir at this point? The other two male soloists were dressed quite casually – very casually in the case of Peter Hoare – with open-necked shirts and so, at a distance, David Ireland rather stood out in white tie and tails. Had he misunderstood the dress code, I wondered? All was revealed when he lurched somewhat unsteadily to his feet and the CCTV picture showed that he wasn’t quite as pristinely dressed as I had thought. The white tie was distinctly askew: Brander had clearly been refreshing himself quite liberally. Brander’s solo requires crisp articulation – rather more than one might expect from a character who has been on the pop – and David Ireland delivered the goods, even if his voice didn’t project as strongly as those of his two male counterparts. He gave us a full-on performance and did well.
The crucial role in La damnation de Faust is that of Méphistophélès and the Festival had pushed the boat out in engaging Christopher Purves. I’d been greatly impressed when hearing him sing the part on the Rattle recording but seeing him in the role brought a different dimension altogether. Vocally, he characterised the role superbly and his stagecraft in terms of gestures and facial expressions – neither of them overdone – enhanced the characterisation marvellously. Up to now my acid test for a Méphistophélès is that the performer should make me want to shout ‘Boo, Hiss!’ I got that tonight from Purves, but much more often the sheer wit of his delivery frequently made me chuckle. His first entry, ‘O pure émotion’ was delivered with just the right amount of sly, insinuating sarcasm and thereafter, Purves took the performance, already excellent, to a higher level through his sparkling interactions with Faust. Vocally, his performance was superb. ‘Voici des roses’ was suavely sung, the line super. Later, his Evocation of the Spirits was commanding and the Serenade was articulated with commendable clarity. After all his machinations, we see Méphistophélès begin to spring his trap in Scene 17. Purves, frighteningly plausible all evening, was in his element here and, having played Faust like a puppet throughout, he now reeled in his hapless and helpless prey. At the height of the Pandemonium, Méphistophélès’ triumph was complete, and Purves really did make this a ‘Boo, Hiss!’ moment. His performance was an outstanding piece of vocal acting.
Although the soloists carry much of the musical narrative thread, the chorus has an important role, not least the men. Well aware of the trickiness of a lot of the vocal writing, I wondered how the Festival Chorus would fare. I was pretty confident they would have been thoroughly prepared for this assignment and that was confirmed from their first involvement in the piece. The ‘Rondes de paysans’ was sung with spirit and energy and those characteristics were in evidence throughout the evening. The men were suitably vigorous revellers chez Auerbach and when Berlioz sends up scholarly fugal writing in this scene the singing was properly lusty. Though the fugal singing was technically disciplined the gentlemen also managed to create the impression that vin ordinaire might have been imbibed a bit freely prior to the concert. It was great fun, as was the later swaggering Chorus of Soldiers and Students. On the other side of the coin, the full choir sang with great finesse in the Chorus of Gnomes and Sylphs towards the end of Part II. Aided by wonderfully subtle playing from the Philharmonia, the choir lulled Faust to sleep in the most beguiling fashion. The men made a thrilling contribution to Pandemonium and then the chorus, with the ladies to the fore, sang the closing Apotheosis of Marguerite most sweetly. This was a considerable performance by the Festival Chorus; they have set the bar high for themselves for the remainder of the week.
The playing of the Philharmonia was superb and despite the richness of Berlioz’s scoring the balance between orchestra and voices was excellent throughout. My goodness, when Berlioz required it, the Philharmonia packed a punch – the Pandemonium was overwhelming in its impact, as it should be, the brass and percussion in full cry. But even more impressive was the way the Philharmonia responded to the countless subtle nuances of Berlioz’s orchestration. The ‘Ballet des sylphs’ towards the end of Part II was miraculously delicate and the superb account of the quirky ‘Menuet des follets’ in Part III had me marvelling at the players’ attention to detail and mastery of orchestral colouring.
Presiding over all this was Adrian Partington. It was evident from start to finish that he had prepared both the singers and the orchestra scrupulously. Equally evident was his enthusiasm for and commitment to the piece. A while ago, when reviewing a recording, I had access to a vocal score and that confirmed to me just how tricky this piece is. It seemed to me that Mr Partington led his performers through the score with complete assurance. Furthermore, and crucially, he paced the music adroitly and instilled in the performance a fine sense of drama and vitality. Among many instances of dramatic conducting were the pell-mell trio and ensemble that concludes Part III, tautly controlled but exciting, and the Ride to the Abyss which in this performance was truly gripping. I thought Adrian Partington’s direction of this great score was successful in every way.
Eventually, after Faust had met his end and the staggering tumult of the Pandemonium had subsided, Marguerite was welcomed into Heaven with music of great beauty. As this scene began, the boy and girl Choristers of Gloucester Cathedral unobtrusively lined up on the organ screen, high above the platform, to add their fresh, innocent voices to the ensemble – singing from memory! The delivery of this last tableau was beautifully done by all concerned. Part of me wished that Adrian Partington had paced the music just a fraction more expansively. On the other hand, the music flowed very naturally and a slower speed might have risked the performance lapsing into sentimentality. At certain points a lone voice can be heard through the ensemble, singing the name of Marguerite. This part was sung by a member of the Festival Chorus, Rachel Roper. Her tone was delightful and her voice projected with ease down the cathedral nave.
Unsurprisingly, the performance was received most enthusiastically by the capacity audience, and rightly so, for tonight the Three Choirs Festival paid a memorable 150th anniversary tribute to Berlioz. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Introducing the concert, the Dean of Gloucester said that ‘we don’t do much Damnation round here’ but he quipped that in case of need the cathedral clergy would be on hand after Sunday’s morning service to offer advice on how to avoid Damnation. Who, I wonder, would wish to avoid Damnation when it occurs in such a magnificent performance as this?