Madness: La Damnation de Faust with the Hallé
La Damnation de Faust
Stalls D9, £19
10 February 2019
I associate Berlioz’s music with utter madness and this performance provided further confirmation. It seems fitting that I saw the same forces in the same hall perform the similarly mad Gurre-Lieder not so long ago; Mark Elder has evidently decided that if there’s one thing the men of the Hallé chorus can do well, it’s a hoard of rampaging ghouls.
I don’t mean to write off Berlioz as a madman and I should really do some proper reading around Damnation. Maybe there are good reasons why he changed Goethe’s story so much, or why he structured this dramatic symphony the way he did. But, alas, without that homework, they seem to me just more madness manifestations: that we’re half an hour in before Mephistopheles arrives; that Faust signs away his soul without even reading the large print. It’s perhaps all a little too mad for my taste – up until, of course, the absolutely terrifying ride into hell, which is as magnificently mad as only Berlioz (or Schoenberg) could have made it.
Elder, I think, feels this too, and makes some sacrifices to ensure that demonic apotheosis assumes its full, overwhelming power. The greatest was in the acoustic: it was annoyingly boomy for the slanderer forces of the majority of the piece, and at the interval I was scratching my head as to why they would have configured the Bridgewater in such a way. It was a sacrifice worth making: the combination of thundering hooves, cackling devils, saintly soaring strings and angelic choir was an amazing musical experience: profoundly weird, truly terrifying, upsetting and enchanting all at once.
It was something of a blast from the past to see David Butt Philip and Rachel Kelly side by side as Faust and Marguerite, two artists on the ROH’s young artist programme the year I joined. In all it was a pleasure to see them perform, even if it does make me feel old. Butt Phillip, impressive when I last saw him as Laertes at Glyndebourne was heroic, sterling throughout and only towards the end giving a hint of the strenuous expectations of the writing for Faust. I had been a little underwhelmed when I last saw Kelly, as Dido at the Wigmore, but she was quite wonderful here: a good amount of volume, beautiful line, gorgeous colouring and bang on pitch. Her French was indiscernible but you can’t have everything.
Laurent Naouri as Mephistopheles was resonant, macabre, giving the impression of having a whale of a time – in short, ideal in the role. The same should be said of Elder and the Hallé. He treats the piece with deadly seriousness, drawing alert performances from orchestra and chorus that was only partially obscured by that boomy acoustic. It is something to be thankful for that in Elder we have someone not only willing to programme these challenging pieces but to do everything in his power to perform them with conviction and excellence.
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