BBC Proms: Berlioz Faust

Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Monteverdi Choir, National Youth Choir of Scotland, Trinity Boys Choir
BBC Prom 31: Royal Albert Hall. 8 August 2017

Whoever thought of turning Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust into a staged opera seems, to me, to be missing the point. Quite apart from the extraordinary challenge of depicting the dramatic scenes on stage, the sheer drama of which would distract from what the music and the libretto is telling us, it is clear that Berlioz intended this as music to be listened to, not watched. That said, there was plenty to see in this Proms performance given by the period instruments of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique together with the Monteverdi Choir, the National Youth Choir of Scotland, and Trinity Boys Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner.

Period instruments really bring Berlioz’s sound world to life in a way that no modern instrument orchestra could. On this occasion, notable aspects of that aural universe were the two ophicleides, the combination of an edgy pair of cornets alongside two trumpets, the sensuous sound of the cor anglais, played beautifully by Michael Niesemann during Marguerite’s D’amour l’ardente flame, the two very busy clarinets (brilliantly played by Nicola Boud and Fiona Mitchell), the attractively raspy sound of the four bassoons and horns (led by Veit Scholz and Anneke Scott respectively) and the distinctive sound of the massed piccolos (led by Marten Root). Added to which is the incredible luxury of wheeling in no fewer than six harps for a few twangs in the final bars. The way Berlioz combines these distinctive orchestral colours is one of the highlights of the piece.

There was a degree of staging in the movement and positioning of the soloists, and in the acting. That was most notable with Laurent Naouri as Mephistopheles, appearing as a creepily louche car-salesman type, initially slithering out from the choir to disrupt Faust’s return to religion, accompanied by suitably slithering trombones. He was singing in a relatively light baritone register rather than Berlioz’s alternative choice of a bass voice. A staging oddity was that, during the sensitive love scene between Faust and Marguerite, they remained separated on either side of the podium between the imposing figure of John Eliot Gardiner. One laugh out loud moment came with the young men of the National Youth Choir of Scotland and the drunken Auerbach’s Celler scene, with Mephistopheles conducting them from front stage in the wild and raucous Amen Fugue on Brander’s song about a roasted rat, concluding with a genuinely funny massed head shake trill.

This leads me to one of the most attractive aspects of the choral line up: the contrast between the two younger choirs and the Monteverdi Choir, the former so fresh and lively, the latter unfortunately suffering from some over prominent vibrato from within the upper voices.  But their combined forces made a splendid sound in the various rousing choruses.

The key solo role is, of course, that of Faust himself, here superbly sung by Michael Spyres, grappling with his inner turmoil and temptations. Ann Hallenberg was slightly less successful as Marguerite, but Ashley Riches was good as Brander and the famous song of the rat.

JEG pointing.jpg John Eliot Gardiner kept careful control on the various scenes, avoiding the temptation to rush and allowing the gentler moments to unfold. I am not an orchestral musician, but if I were I would find his habit of pointing directly at soloists as they are about to enter a bit intimidating. Most conductors that I admire tend to give a gentle gesture of encouragement, or even just a look, rather than something quite so direct.


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