La damnation de Faust: LSO/ Gergiev, 3rd November 2013

E-mail Print PDF

If things had gone http://img62.imageshack.us/img62/1513/q4hi.jpgaccording to plan, this would have been the second outing for Berlioz’s trail-blazing “dramatic legend” given by a major London orchestra at the start of the 2013/14 concert season. For unspecified reasons, the Philharmonia’s performance, which was to have opened their South Bank season at the end of September, metamorphosed into Berlioz’s other genre-defying hybrid, Roméo et Juliette, thereby depriving us now of the opportunity to indulge in a little critical compare-and–contrast at close quarters (though the LSO undertakes the Shakespeare adaptation later this week, so all is not lost). That change at the RFH left the tenor, poor Paul Groves, severely underemployed: and it would be amusing, if scarcely polite, to point out after tonight’s performance the fact that if you need difficult French repertory to be sung these days, the last place on earth you’d bother to look for it would be France, instead turning your gaze over 3,000 miles away to America (or perhaps indeed the Americas: this is repertoire Flórez should surely be investigating one day soon). And as it happens, this London Symphony Orchestra concert underwent a major metamorphosis of its own, late in the day losing the services of its Mephistophélès, Ildar Abdrazakov, who withdrew for “personal reasons”, alas, I learn, not unconnected with the remaining presence of his wife, Olga Borodina, as Marguérite.

Ah well, it’s an ill-wind etc. because though this leaves me in an unenviable state of auditory virginity on the Abdrazakov front live – I’ve somehow managed to miss all his previous performances at the ROH: one opera, two concerts – we had instead a very welcome and refined substitute in the shape of the Italian bass, Mirco Palazzi, a diminutive little hottie with almost everything the role requires except an easy upward extension and idiomatic French: but then, easy upward extensions and idiomatic French were in notably short supply elsewhere tonight, both in the 80-odd strong LSO Chorus and in Ms. Borodina’s singing. As for the necessary declamatory power, Palazzi holds his head above sonic water until the very end, where more sheer stentorian force than he’ll ever be the master of is clearly needed. Elsewhere however, as in an exquisitely phrased “Voici des roses” in Act II, the voice when singing softly has an almost caressingly seductive, intimate quality, warm, dark and enveloping. A pity, then, that his efforts were set at virtual nought by Valery Gergiev’s strenuously unatmospheric accompaniment, the three trombones allowed to play their underpinning chorale not at any kind of mood-enhancing pianissimo, but belted out con tutta forza, nearly drowning out the poor singer in the process.

And it’s this sort of thing, of which the instances alas multiplied across the evening, which leave me wondering just what kind of Berliozian Gergiev actually is. Certainly his own thoughts on the subject, as quoted in the programme, scarcely inspire confidence, being no more than an odd mixture of generalised gung-ho and gush (a bit like his conducting of it, in fact). And though he wouldn’t be the first conductor who couldn’t give any kind of meaningful account verbally of music he could nevertheless conduct very well, I increasing think that he can’t, actually, even do the latter, and that the incoherence of his thought is mirrored in his conducting of the music. Whole stretches of Act II seemed pressurised, the tempo, if not actively headlong, still sounding far too urgent and impatient, with a debilitating reluctance to let anything other than the occasional self-contained slow set-piece – the Dance of the Sylphs, say – breathe at its own pace, everything else otherwise always pressing forwards, too insistent and too loud. Like Solti before him, of course, he comes in to his own in the larger set-pieces like the Ride to the Abyss in Act IV, or the rowdy, multi-stranded choruses of soldiers and students that end Act II. But too much else is just plain unidiomatic, Berlioz with a foreign accent so thick that it sometimes barely sounds like him (not least in the hideously forced and hard-driven Rakoczy March that ends Act I, which should sound inexorable, gathering force by a kind of steady juggernaut swagger suggestive of military might massing, instead of the neon-lit flashy orchestral showstopper dished up here). I remember, several years ago now, hearing Gergiev conduct Benvenuto Cellini in the RFH with his then Rotterdam forces: and utterly dreadful it was too (and I shan’t even mention the recently-deceased Berlioz conductor then sitting immediately behind me, the Bärenreiter full score propped on his knees, half-glasses perched on the end of his nose, whose outraged sotto voce repertory of involuntary grunts and groans were both priceless and instructive).

And then we have Ms. Borodina. http://img197.imageshack.us/img197/4289/w8nm.jpgAs Marguérite. In what acoustic universe the Russian mezzo-contralto – matronly dark-toned, rafter-rattling and way beyond bosomy - could be construed as an ideal aural ideogram for Berlioz’s wistful virgin I have no idea. This is the voice of Amneris putting Aida in her place, Carmen on the prowl and Dalila panting for red meat. But of Marguérite? Never in a million years. Moreover, Borodina’s voice, in its prime one of the wonders of the world, is now as impassive as her demeanour, with the same marmoreal, slightly disdainful and unyielding quality of a Piero della Francesca Madonna (one of the bigger ones). That said, I was surprised by the extent to which she had the artistry, if not entirely the technical means, to keep the voice as quiet and as low-key in utterance as she did throughout (most of) “Autrefois, un roi de Thulé” at her first entrance in Act III. Only a perfunctory and very far from heart-felt “Ah!” at the end spoiled the effect of rapt self-absorption otherwise successfully summoned. But I have to say that “D’amour l’ardente flamme” at the start of Act IV was a blowsy business, not remotely helped by Gergiev’s breathless sprint through the “C” section (of an aria cast in ABACA form) where the poor mezzo had to gabble in a sort of pitch-free Sprechstimme just to crank any sort of sound out. They may be old friends, but you’d never know it from this performance. If only either of them had troubled to listen to Christine Pendrill’s exquisite sense of line and phrasing in the prefatory cor anglais solo, both might have learned a thing or two about how Berlioz “goes”.

But – and it is,http://img14.imageshack.us/img14/5770/kgb5.jpg thankfully, a very big “but” – there was a saving grace in all this (apart from Palazzi’s rather lovely little devil): Michael Spyres’ Faust (sung, unlike everybody else, without a score, and what a difference in communicative effect it makes). Where to start? With the perfectly even placement and emission? (you couldn’t slide a cigarette paper between his vibrations) With the full-bodied, virile tone? With his amazing resort just the once to voix-mixte for a high note that single-handedly persuaded me that this old French trick of half-head-voice can really work? With his dead-centre-of-the-note pair of high C#s in “Ange adorée”? With the rock-solid declamation of “Nature immense” in Act IV, both thrilling and deeply moving? (Aeneas is plainly on the cards somewhere down the line, please God in time for the ROH revival as I don’t think I can sit through another performance by Brian Hymel as long as I live). Or with the sheer effortless beauty of the sound, ductile, and yet not so much warm as clarion? Yeah, I’m going with the latter. This must be the sort of tenor sound Berlioz – and Rossini before him, from whom the Frenchman inherited it – had in his mind’s ear when writing those sudden, impossible excursions way, way above the stave: the voice of Adolphe Nourrit (and let us trust that Mr. Spyres enjoys an entirely different fate). If Covent Garden cannot persuade the sooty-lashed one to sing Arnold in the upcoming Guillaume Tell – thereby guaranteeing that one of their latter-day exhumations of French grand operas doesn’t end up deader than the average Dodo – I’d be perfectly happy to hear Michael Spyres instead, whose greater baritonal heft and generally fleshier sound might be even more close to the ideal.

I ought to leave it there on a positive note, I suppose, but that would a) be unfair to Florian Boesch, a most luxurious bit of bit-part casting as Brander (though less suave sound and sharper French would be welcome), and b) would leave some loose ends untied (at least for me). So, all credit to the LSO who played for their tooth-pick wielding Maestro excellently, giving him presumably what he wanted, minor brass blubs apart (this is an LSO Live affair, being recorded for commercial release, so there’d better be some bucking-up come the repeat on Thursday 7th). And credit to the LSO chorus, though I’ve heard them sing better, and in this very work too. Black marks for a cough-prone, inattentive and generally unresponsive audience (although, if I had any faith in their perceptions, I might be inclined to sympathise with them). And the very blackest of marks for omitting the important – and LARGE – chorus of boys demanded by the score, and leaving the celestial closing cries of “Marguérite” not to a solo voice as written – magical if done by a good treble which you’d be bound to have on hand if a boys’ choir were present – but to FOUR chorus sopranos with poor sound-blend and ensemble, thereby despoiling the end of the work. If Berlioz’s instructions mean so very little to Gergiev, I wonder that he should be devoting 8 whole concerts to his music over these few weeks. I didn’t catch either of his – primarily orchestral - opening salvoes in this series last Thursday and Friday (off first at Wozzeck and then the National Theatre’s 50th B’day Bash): but I fervently hope that a more attuned sensibility becomes evident as it progresses, though in truth, after nigh-on twenty years’ wait, I doubt it’s going to happen. Still, hope burns eternal…..

3_stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor

Opera Britannia



Last Updated ( Tuesday, 05 November 2013 05:37 )  

Recent Reviews

Puccini: Tosca

Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older.


 

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say.


 

Mozart: The Magic Flute

For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite.


 

Shostakovich: The Nose

Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nosewas not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it."


 

News

ENO goes widescreen

After resisting the prevailing tide for opera houses beaming their wares to a worldwide cinema audience, English National Opera has seen the light. From 2014, selected productions will be screened at 300 cinemas around the UK and beyond, starting with its revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton. A new production, by Terry Gilliam, of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini will also be relayed. Gilliam’s earlier Berlioz adventure, The Damnation of Faust, was broadcast on television.


 

 

Poetry Corner

Biography: Mary Robertson is an Emeritus Professor in Neuropsychiatry at University College London and visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Aside from being an opera devotee, Mary is a published poet and photographer.

(New poems added: 04/08/2010)

more >>

 

 


News updates

Subscribe to Opera Britannia to receive all the latest news and latest reviews

Signup >>

Around the Houses

Dmitri Platanias will sing the title role when the Royal Opera revives its new production of Nabucco. Mariusz Kwiecien will be joined by Saimir Pirgu in Steffen Aarfing's production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden in 2015. The Royal Opera will stage Andrea Chenier in 2014/15 with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lucic.

Anna Netrebko is due to sing the role of Lady Macbeth for a single performance at the Bavarian State Opera in June 2014.

Maria Agresta will sing Lucrezia in Verdi's I due Foscari in the 2014-15 season at Covent Garden. Placido Domingo does the Doge double, adding the baritone role of Francesca Foscari to his Simon Boccanegra.

Corinne Winters, fresh from her triumph as Violetta in ENO's production of La traviata, is to return to the Coliseum next season as Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto CelliniMichael Spyres sings the title role in a production which sees the return ofTerry Gilliam to the director's seat, after his Damnation of Faust debut.

. Read More>>

"Around the Houses" concentrates on providing the latest news on future plans for opera companies around the globe, artists schedules, cancellations and interesting snippets of information. We will try and avoid unsubstantiated gossip wherever possible, but all of our sources will remain completely confidential.  If you would like to advise us about potential news for this section, then please feel free to email us at info@opera-britannia.com.

Coming Soon

Reviews to be published shortly:



 


 


CD Reviews

Vivaldi: Catone in Utica (Naive)

Althoughhttp://img197.imageshack.us/img197/8908/gkdw.JPG he claimed to have composed around ninety operas, there cannot be many left in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for Naïve to record in its ongoing Vivaldi Edition if you discount pasticcios, reworkings and incomplete works. Their latest offering, the fourteenth opera in the series, falls into the latter category, for only Acts II and III of Catone in Utica have survived. The opera was written to celebrate the culmination of his third and final season at Verona’s Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica – a profitable success for the composer. Premiered in 1737, it is unknown whether Act I was even written by Vivaldi himself, or whether music by other composers was employed.

Read more>>


Recital Reviews

Anne Sofie von Otter: Alumni Series

Milton Court, 23rd November 2013

When this http://img14.imageshack.us/img14/7950/npze.jpgrecital was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.

Read more>>


DVD Reviews

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (EuroArts)

Scholars now http://img543.imageshack.us/img543/5228/vu6o.jpgcast doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.

Read more>>


Copyright 09 Opera Britannia
facebook twitter