Friday, 26 April 2019

A sort of magic: John Nelson conducts Berlioz' La damnation de Faust in Strasbourg with Michael Spyres & Joyce DiDonato

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust in rehearsal- Michael Spyres, Joyce DiDonato, John Nelson - Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal- Michael Spyres, Joyce DiDonato, John Nelson
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz La Damnation de Faust; Michael Spyres, Nicolas Courjal, Joyce DiDonato, Alexandre Duhamel, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, John Nelson; Palais de la musique et des congres, Strasbourg
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 April 2019
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)

John Nelson returns to Strasbourg and to Berlioz for another inspiring performance

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal - Nicolas Courjal - Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal - Nicolas Courjal
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Which musical treatment of Goethe's Faust is truest to Goethe? Discuss.

Undoubtedly Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust is undoubtedly a highly personal take on the story. As ever with Berlioz, the drama works as much through the orchestral and choral contributions as through the singers. Berlioz' assemblage of scenes, almost tableaux, can verge on the picaresque at times but it works for Berlioz's purpose and at times the piece is astonishing.


So it was very heartening to learn that conductor John Nelson was re-uniting with the fine Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (with which he performed and recorded Berlioz' Les Troyens, see my review) for performances of Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust at the Palais de la musique et des congres in Strasbourg (seen 25 April 2019) with Michael Spyres as Faust, Nicolas Courjal as Mephistopheles, Joyce DiDonato as Marguerite and Alexandre Duhamel as Brander, plus the Coro Gulbenkian and Les Petits Chanteurs de Strasbourg - Maitrise de l'Opera de Strasbourg.

It was my first visit to the Strasbourg concert hall, a handsome 1970s building, and I was impressed with the alive-ness and vividness of the sound. It is not a huge hall, the orchestra and chorus filled the stage (triple woodwind, six harps...), with the children's chorus performing from the rear of the hall for the final scene. The performance was sometimes very loud, yet the hall responded well and the quieter, tender scenes were not lost either.

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal- Alexandre Duhamel, John Nelson - Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal- Alexandre Duhamel, John Nelson
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
John Nelson brought a symphonic sweep to the music with an eye to all the vivid detail in the score. This was large scale Berlioz on modern instruments, but the orchestra's lovely focused sound, particularly the way the strings did not over-dominate, brought the work alive. It was a strong bright sound, and moments like the 'Marche Hongroise' were almost driven. Berlioz' orchestration is often surprising, and both orchestra and conductor showed that they had developed a strong relationship, making these moments magical.

You wonder what style of tenor voice Berlioz had in mind for Faust.
Certainly it is a dramatic role, but needs flexibility too. Not for nothing is Nicolai Gedda's recording still a recommendation. Michael Spyres has made a specialism of the type of music that was around in France when Berlioz was alive. His lithe tenor with its remarkable high extension suites the role well, the quiet scenes had a lovely intimate fervour to them. If the 'Invocation' took him to the limits, that was probably what Berlioz intended. This was a very involved performance, and Michael Spyres sang from memory. His Faust was a strange introvert, an odd character, thoughtful and intelligent, completely ripe for Mephistopheles' seduction, for that was what it was.

Nicolas Courjal brought a wry humour and vivid sense of character to the role. This was a performance which was as much visual as vocal and we benefited from this in the concert hall. But there were times when you were aware that Nicolas Courjal's characterful instrument lacked the sweep and resonance that some of the great basso cantante brought to the role. But then you would be caught by the twinkle in Courjal's eye, his sense of suave mischief and underlying sheer viciousness, and be captivated.

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal - Coro Gulbenkian, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal - Coro Gulbenkian,
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Marguerite is a relatively small role, but her two arias are corkers. I have to confess that my ideal in the role is a dramatic singer like Regine Crespin, Joyce DiDonato brought a different approach, more intimate, more delicate. This was an intimate characterful performance, sung with plangent tone, which brought out Marguerite's naivety and youthfulness. The converse was that there were moments in 'D'amour l'ardente flamme' that I wanted to sear but didn't, DiDonato has a way of shading off high notes which gave the music a lovely shape.

If this had been a staging I would have said that the love scene between Faust and Marguerite lacked a real spark, but Berlioz tells us a great deal in the orchestra and the way John Nelson really pressed the music forward told volumes.

Brander is a rather thankless role, but Alexandre Duhamel brought a nice swagger to his aria about the rat!

The Coro Gulbenkian made the chorus as much a character in the drama as the soloists, its highly dramatic performance really engaged with the music and the made such a terrific sound.

The final scenes were as astonishing and as awe inspiring as they should be. The shattering 'Pandaemonium' with choir, orchestra and conductor combining to bring Berlioz' terrifying visions alive, and then the harps wake up and we have the Epilogue at first just female chorus and harps. A moment which looks nothing on paper but can be sheer magic, as here.

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal - Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal - Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
This was one of those performances where all the individual parts combined to create a sort of magic.

Historical note: La Damnation de Faust was premiered at the Opera Comique in Paris in 1846 with the tenor Gustave-Hippolyte Roger in the title role. In 1849 Roger would create the title role, Jean de Leyde, in Meyerbeer's Le prophete but contemporary accounts suggest this his voice was more suitable for the lighter, Opera Comique roles and Meyerbeer had to make significant cuts in Jean de Leyde to bring this dramatic role within Roger's capabilities.

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