Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust has long been described as a work that resists classification. Berlioz eventually called it a “dramatic legend” after tinkering with the idea of “concert opera” or just simply “legend”. It was never intended to be staged, despite numerous attempts to do so, mostly unsuccessful. And though Edward Gardner has frequently conducted it in the theatre, in this instance he gave us the work in concert with the London Philharmonic, a performance that reminded us first and foremost just how much the score is driven by Berlioz’s often astonishing choral and orchestral writing.
Gardner’s interpretation gained weight and momentum as it went, from the uneasy pastoral of the start to the metaphysical contrasts of the closing choruses in hell and heaven respectively, the ferocity of the former utterly terrifying, the latter finally achieving the timeless tranquility to which the music has previously aspired but never attained. Exemplary playing resulted in textures by turns broodingly introspective, beguilingly sensuous and eerily malign, with sinister brass and woodwind flickering like demonic fire.
The London Philharmonic Choir, meanwhile, was augmented by tenors and basses from the London Symphony Chorus and, for the final apotheosis, the children’s voices of the London Youth Choirs: Gardner has long been an outstanding choral conductor, and their singing really hit home in its detail and depth of characterisation throughout. Angels, demons, students and soldiers were all sharply differentiated. The tavern scene was suitably uproarious, the blasphemous Amen fugue aptly raucous. Sylphs really sounded seductive and Marguerite’s prurient neighbours harangued and threatened fearsomely.
Faust was played by American tenor John Irvin, replacing the indisposed David Junghoon Kim. He’s a handsome, stylish singer, with an impeccable sense of line and a finely understated way with words. Yet the voice is small, not always carrying easily over Berlioz’s large-ish orchestra or penetrating the spaces of the Festival Hall. Christopher Purves has sung Mephistopheles in the UK before, both at ENO (also with Gardner) and Glyndebourne, and his caustic irony and bitter wit remain persuasively incisive. As Marguerite, Karen Cargill seemed emotionally detached at times, but sounded beautiful in D’Amour L’Ardente Flamme. Jonathan Lemalu, meanwhile, was the underpowered Brander. Not, perhaps, the most evenly matched quartet of soloists despite many fine things, and the evening ultimately belonged to Gardner, his orchestra, and those superb choirs.