Superb Berlioz Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle’s chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boy’s Choir, the Tiffin Girl’s Choir and Tiffin Children’s Choir (choirmaster James Dsy) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining. An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right. If Simon Rattle can achieve such excellence in the cramped confines of the Barbican Hall, imagine how a world class concert hall would transform the nation’s musical and cultural profile. We could use a few miracles.
The London Symphony Orchestra were playing as if transformed, too. There were so many players and singers that they almost overflowed the stage area. Projecting such sound into a shoebox auditorium can be overwhelming. On BBC Radio 3 and on Medici TV the balance might be better, but the live experience was intoxicating. Wisely, though, Rattle channeled the energy away from volume, towards shaping structure and detail with vivid attention. Though \The Damnation of Faust lends itself to theatre, the drama lies in the music, its contrasts and imaginative conception.
On the plains of Hungary, the peasants are celebrating the Resurrection, the joyful chorus taken up by the orchestra in a jovial march. The expansiveness in Bryan Hymel’s voice reflected Faust’s inward awakening. Spookily atmospheric playing from the LSO, setting the scene for Faust in his lonely garret. Hymel’s “Sans regrets j’ai quitté les riantes campagnes” rang with resolve. But Christ has risen and Nature blossoms. dare Faust dream of new life ?
A Faust as strong as Hymel, with his richness of tone and emotional depth, needs a Méphistophélès who is equally strong. Christopher Purves’s Méphistophélès proved an ideal counterpoint to Hymel’s Faust. Méphistophélès senses Faust’s weak spot. “Ô pure émotion!”. Purves’s voice exuded sophistication but the authoritative edge in his voice suggested hidden malevolence. A well-defined scene at Auerbach’s in Leipzig, where Rattle and the LSO did the drunken vulgarity inn the music with robust humour. Gabor Bretz (Brander) “conducting” the woozy chorus as he sang. Though Méphistophélès may be the devil, the tenderness in Purves voice as he sang Voici des roses, suggested that Méphistophélès might after all, be demonic Oberon, lulling his victims in sleep. Thus the magical textures in the gnome and sylph choruses : Berlioz’s debt to Mendelssohn ? In disconcerting contrast, the soldiers and students march off, oblivious to danger. Like Faust himself. Méphistophélès’s sly “voice” lies in the wry clarinet melody.
Part Three begins with militarism, but Hymel’s sang Faust’s Air with exceptional beauty , his voice swelling on the line “Que j’aime ce silence”. the silence reiterated in the elusive air in the orchestra that followed. Nice detail in the orchestration, suggesting a lute, as though Faust were serenading Marguerite, sung by Karen Cargill, her Song of the King of Thule garlanded by viola and celli. The scene where fireflies and will-o-the-wisps dance in the darkness, is so enchanting that even Méphistophélès is taken aback. Again, Rattle’s emphasis on detail and magic paid off well. Fast paced exchanges follow, between Faust, Margueriter and,Méphistophélès, but gain the moments of calm are even more powerful. Cargill sang Marguerite’s Romance with feeling, the melancholy mood taken up by solo clarinet.
Perhaps the heart of The Damnation of Faust is the scene in which Faust communes with nature. Although some variants of the Faust legend emphasize God and the Devil, for Berlioz, a true son of the Romantic Era, Nature was divine. Thus the significance of the aria Hymel’s Nature immense, impénétrable et fière , which H|ymel delivered with profound authority. Faust proceeds on his journey to the Abyss. Hymel and Purves sang their exchange with forceful spirit. Though they wore evening dress, their voices sounded as though they were riding through the sky on dark horses. Now, Méphistophélès doesn’t bother being sauve. Purves’s lines are reduced to “Hop, Hop, Hop”. In Hell, the demons sing snatches of Greek and gobbledgook. Fabulously manic performances all round. Now Rattle let rip : massive climaxes, crashing cymbals, wailing tubas, waywardly angular lines in the chorus, like the flames of Hell. he men’s choir walked down to the platform, and stood, singing, among the orchestra.
As for Marguerite, the harps rustled and female voices sang “Hosanna”. Palpitating rhythms in the orchestral line suggest peace, the fluttering of wings, even the idea of water (in contrast to the fires of hell). Then the children’s choirs filtered into the Barbican auditorium . Schoolkids, yes, with uniform style white shirts, but the voices of angels.