A Damned Fine ‘Damnation of Faust’!

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

In 1974 the CBSO Chorus, formed just four months earlier, performed their first concert. It was a testing one too, Berlioz’s ‘Damnation of Faust’ under the orchestra’s French conductor Louis Fremaux. Berlioz makes huge demands on his choral forces requiring them not just to sing but also to act in character. In the work’s two hour span their roles include peasants lustily enjoying the advent of Spring, solemn Easter celebrants, roistering drunks, students and soldiers, gnomes, sylphs and will o’ the wisps. At the work’s climax they take both sides of the theological divide: the chorus of demons in Pandemonium, in Berlioz’s invented infernal language, and a heavenly host wafting the soul of Marguerite to heaven. Their debut performance was a triumph and, no surprises here, so was this one under Kazuki Yamada.

Symphony Hall looks especially resplendent when the Chorus is on duty and here they were joined by the Tenors and Basses from The Hallé Choir. They showed tremendous bite and vigour in the Auerbach's wine cellar scene but also humour in their mock ‘Amen’, first intoned in a nasal mocking whinny – accompanied by a ripe and redolent raspberry from then tuba – and then in a grand, full-throated straight rendition. Crucial details were observed: in the Easter Hymn where their first ‘Christ has Risen!’, was muted in wonder, the second exultant and soaring. The ladies sounded terrified when almost being mown down by Faust and Mephistopheles’ hell-bound horses, and supernally radiant in heaven. It was a coup-de-theatre when they were joined by the CBSO Children's Chorus and CBSO Youth Chorus – solemnly entering down the choir stairs – with Miku Yasukawa, as the Celestial Voice, spotlit in the lower circle. All credit to the work by Chorus Director Simon Halsey and Associate Chorus Director Julian Wilkins.

Berlioz’s phantasmagoric opera for the theatre-of-the-mind also needs a quartet of excellent soloists.. Pene Pati was a resplendent Faust, his tenor voice combining lyricism and elegance in ‘Merci, doux crépuscule’, but with the power and vocal reserves for ‘Nature immense’. The mezzo-soprano Grace Durham was a radiant Marguerite, her final “Ah” of the ‘King of Thule’ expressing a world of longing in a sighed syllable, eloquently accompanied by Adam Röhmer’s solo viola. Durham conveyed the emotional desolation of ‘D’amour l'ardente flamme’ – a heartbreaking final ‘Hélas!” – and a stroke of genius by Berlioz to accompany her with cor anglais (Rachael Pankhurst) the orchestra’s most melancholy instrument. If Jonathan Lemalu (Brander) sounded below his best, the Argentine bass Nahuel di Pierro was a devilishly fine Mephistopheles – hands in pockets, smiling sardonically, like a gambler with loaded dice, a suavely infernal master of ceremonies. His ‘Un puce gentile’ and mocking ‘moral song’ ferociously biting and sardonic, while ‘Voici des roses’ was satanically seductive. Yamada and the CBSO provided stupendous support: the swaggering Hungarian March, lilting minuet for the will o’ the wisps, thrilling ride to the abyss and cataclysmic arrival in Hell just some of the highlights.

Norman Stinchcombe

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