If things had gone according 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. As 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, 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…..