Magazine article The Spectator

Rough with the Smooth

Magazine article The Spectator

Rough with the Smooth

Article excerpt

The Damnation of Faust

Barbican rigoletto ENO

Berlioz called La Damnation de Faust 'an opera without decor or costumes', which is what I quite often wish all operas were. But as David Cairns writes in his characteristically illuminating but tendentious programme notes, 'It is an opera of the mind's eye performed on an ideal stage of the imagination; we see it more vividly than any visual medium could depict it, except the cinema (which it at times anticipates).'

That last interesting thought apart, I wonder if my visual imagination is defective - I suspect that it is. Anyway, I don't find, on the whole, that I do have vivid images during Damnation, and certainly not of a Hungarian plain, Auerbach's cellar, and so forth. The 'Ride to the Abyss', on the other hand, is without question one of the most terrifying and visually evocative passages in the whole of music, but is in a different category from the rest of this uneven work. In fact, as almost always, for me, Berlioz is his own worst enemy in that the quite marvellous sections of Damnation are so superb that they place the rest in an unflattering light, showing much even of this piece to be commonplace, inept or merely bizarre.

Occasionally there is a performance which is conducted with such intensity and passion that the unevennesses are less acute. It has been Colin Davis's achievement, over many decades, to produce many of them. Valery Gergiev is not in that league, though his performance with the LSO at the Barbican had some prodigious things. As often, the first part of the concert, comprising the first two parts, was flat: Gergiev takes time to remember which city he is in and which composer he is conducting, let alone which work.

There was plenty of raggedness, thanks to his fluttering fingers, from the experienced London Symphony Chorus. And the music of this half is mainly inferior to the second half.

No doubt Thomas Quasthoff's last-minute cancellation was unsettling too, though his flown-in replacement Willard White was completely relaxed as Mephistopheles, singing with insolent ease of tone as well as of demeanour. The music that came off best in these parts was that which hardly relates to Faust, and it took Michael Schade, in that largely ungrateful role - Faust has wonderful monologues, but that's about it, and so qwe look in vain for a character who interacts with others - until after the interval to do more than sing efficiently.

Surely there can be no question that Berlioz's inspiration quickens with the arrival of Marguerite? …

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