The Damnation of Faust, BBC Prom 31, Royal Albert Hall, RAH, August 2017

Opera at the Proms is one of the glories of the summer season, allowing music and singers to communicate directly, with no director’s vision getting in the way. Two nights ago, Khovanshchina helped lay bare the soul of Russia, and now Berlioz’s magnificent musical evocation on the Faust myth, where the brilliant scholar veers into the abyss and Marguerite ascends to heaven, was given a thrilling performance.

All images BBC/ Chris Christodolou

The Damnation of Faust, which the composer called a légend dramatique, is a difficult opera to stage, though at the ENO in 2011 Terry Gilliam gave it a wonderfully theatrical production set it in Nazi times. Now at the Proms, the music spoke for itself without directorial intervention. Under the superbly sensitive baton of John Eliot Gardiner it achieved a remarkable translucence, turning for example that rather hackneyed Dance of the Sylphs in Part II, when Faust is sleeping, into the lightest and subtlest of Mephistophelian magic.

Faust and Mephistopheles

Although listed as a concert performance without ‘semi-staging’, Laurent Naouri’s gravelly insidious Mephistopheles came over with marvellous theatricality as he appeared occasionally next to or even among the chorus, subtly manipulating events with hand gestures and capturing Faust’s soul by devilish legerdemain. As Faust himself, Michael Spyres, who has sung this role more than any other living tenor, invested it with an ethereal quality that brought out the timelessness of Berlioz’s interpretation: a scholar trapped between the dry precision of deep studies, and the lighter joys of life, united by a demonic power into an inextinguishable yearning that takes on a life and death of its own. As embodiment of his desire, Ann Hallenberg gave a beautiful vocal interpretation to Marguerite, her Ballad of the King of Thule expressing a distant purity that she later invests with extraordinary soul in her D’amour l’ardente flamme, the flame that consumes her youth.

The Trinity Boys Choir, Monteverdi Choir, and National Choir of Scotland produced gripping choral sounds for the ride to the abyss, and the final apotheosis was heavenly. Yet the chorus managed brilliantly with lighter moments earlier on, and after the drinking song by Ashley Riches in his comic turn as Brander, the choral fugue was performed with such evident life and enthusiasm that one couldn’t help smiling. These musical forces were superbly directed by John Eliot Gardiner, conducting his Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique playing on period-instruments.

A thoroughly compelling performance of Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’ that helps make opera at the Proms an unforgettable experience.

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