CBSO Damnation of Faust review


Berlioz The Damnation of Faust, CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

An amiable drunken singing contest ensued as the CBSO Chorus's men divided into raucous students and lusty soldiers, everyone out for a night on the town – simultaneously singing in different languages and time signatures. It could have been cacophony but Berlioz brilliantly engineered a harmonious and thrilling climax. It's characteristic of his hybrid work, neither cantata nor opera but a hotch-potch. Yet when played and sung like this, with whole-hearted conviction, energy and edge-of-the-seat excitement, it's a glorious one. Under Edward Gardner's baton even the Hungarian March – a sparkling but irrelevant orchestral showpiece– seemed integral when played with such swagger and verve.

Faust is a tricky role, anti-hero and self-absorbed seducer, much of his music inward, and pensive with the dying fall of ennui. Saimir Pirgu was ardent and well-focused vocally, with an impressive invocation to Nature. Christine Rice's Marguerite was no winsome maiden but a passionate woman bewildered by erotic entrancement, her anguish in D'amour l'ardente flamme devastatingly tender, mirrored by Rachael Pankhurst's cor anglais. Joshua Bloom was not a bitingly sardonic Méphistophélès but a smiling hail-fellow-well-met with a heart of darkness – a big voice used to terrifying effect in the Ride to the Abyss. It was a triumph for the orchestra – delicate, powerful, shimmering as required – and the CBSO Chorus, whether swaying drunkenly with Božidar Smiljanić's Brander, as sylphs, spirits or hurling Berlioz's made-up demonic language through cupped hands. Marguerite was wafted beautifully to heaven accompanied by the angelic voices of the CBSO's Youth Chorus and Children's Chorus.

Norman Stinchcombe

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