Traditionally the Devil has all the best tunes, but in Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust the tenor has some good ones and Marguérite has some of the best, haunting, tender, fey. Not that the Devil lacks tunes. Berlioz doesn’t please everyone but the Barbican was full of the faithful on September 22 and they were rewarded with a fine performance in the hands of Valery Gergiev with the chorus and orchestra of the London Symphony in cracking form.
This was part of a series concerts with the baritone Thomas Quasthoff at the centre. Unfortunately he was taken ill at the last moment. Phones rang and Sir Willard White flew from Copenhagen to the rescue. These days Willard looks grizzled as if he might break any moment into Ol’Man River. His bottom notes are sounding a bit thinner now but his top Fs rang out clearly and sonorously. He showed his mettle and his compelling presence. A great performance.
Joyce diDonato proved once again what a great artist she is but I think she was miscast as Marguérite. She is a mezzo with a dramatic soprano top register where surely what is called for is a gentler, more atmospheric sound (Victoria de los Angeles was ideal). The voice of Michael Schade, Canadian tenor, is fluent, French sounding and he was every inch but one a good Faust. But the voice is not ideally lyrical or mellifluous.
What incredible imagination Berlioz shows here, perhaps the greatest Romantic of all! Damnation has often been staged but Berlioz conceived it as a concert cantana with the listener free to follow in his head the dream like sequences. Recall the lady who said she preferred drama on the radio rather than television because the scenery was better. Berlioz kindles fire in the imagination and stimulates the mind, the music dissolving from one venue to another in a way that anticipates the cinema, digging deep into the sub-conscious in this old story using new ways with melodies, shapes, harmonies and orchestrations that appeal (to the faithful).
Always amazing, for example, is the sound of a flute and two piccolos that squirm and wriggle like small fish (actually portraying the will-o-the-wisp).
Of course it is not all imagination; with Berlioz there is an extraordinary organising mind and technical know-how, almost know-all.
Does his inspiration falter a little at the end with the ride to the abyss? Maybe, but Gergiev came near to bringing the finale off, recalling those great Berlioz conductors, Beecham and Hamilton Harty. I remember how Harty got the Berlioz sounds by exhorting the orchestra: “Come on boys, DEVIL!”.