Berlioz The Damnation of Faust with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique, the Monteverdi Choir, the National Youth Choir of Scotland, the Trinity Boys Choir and soloists Michael Spyres, Ann Hallenberg, Laurent Naouri and Ashley Riches. Gardiner's Berlioz is of course not news to anyone, since he's been conducting Berlioz for decades and The Damnation of Faust many times, though his only commercially available recording dates back over 30 years. Thus the joy of hearing it afresh, with new forces at Prom 31. This was Berlioz revealed as a man ahead of his time - wonderfully fresh and alive.
Though Goethe's Faust is based on medieval legend, Faust, like Goethe himself, was a prototype of Modern Man, one of the first Romantic heroes, in the sense that he breaks the rules. Significantly, Faust rejects the values of society around him, obsessed by war and mindless destruction. Berlioz's Faust is revolutionary, too, because the piece breaks conventions of genree. Like Roméo et Juliette, (read more HERE) it's neither opera, nor symphony, and isn't strictly oratorio. It's not narrative but predicates on the idea that audiences know the original literary sources. And Symphonie fantastique's pretty unusual, too. Read more HERE (JEG at the Proms 2015).
In Faust's town, on the edge of the countryside, the locals are celebrating Easter. But they don't get the irony. Jesus died for their sins, so they have no qualms about sinning again. With the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique, the archaic sound of horns and drums evokes a sense of endless time, as if we were hearing echoes of ancient battle, the past haunting the present. This sense of Time, in Faust, is fundamental. Faust is an old man, who has spent a lifetime learning, in the belief that knowledge is something work seeking. But the world doesn't care, rattling (those fifes and drums) on its merry way to madness. Berlioz emphasizes the time dimension, incorporating children's choruses to emphasize the contrast between youth and old age, knowledge and ignorance. Not that children are ignorant. Adults who scrap like kids are all too ignorant. Thus the punchy briskness of the First Part : the world going merrily to hell, uncaring.
It helps that Michael Spyres' voice is young sounding, agile enough to traverse the elaborate flights central to French style. Faust's old on the outside, but his mind is sharper than most. Laurent Naouri is a superb Méphistophélès. In Berlioz, the devil is suave, a sophisticate who dissembles with elegance and charm. Leave brutishness to bassos profundo in other operas, and other composers ! For their first trip together, Méphistophélès take Faust to a tavern in Leipzig, where students carouse, drinking themselves to oblivion, instead of studying. Berlioz writes deliberately crude rhythms, blurry lines for the chorus and flatulent passages for brass. Period instruments are earthy and punchy, expressing humanity in a way more polished instruments can never quite achieve. Gardiner and his players let us hear the drunks swaying, arm in arm from side to side. Brander (Ashley Riches) sings of drunken rats and Méphistophélès's of fleas. Vermin, and vulgarity. So much for "le fatras de la philosophie".
On the fields and woods by the Elbe, Gardiner's approach and the personality of his orchestra add to the sense of pristine simplicity. The music becomes vernal, suggesting open meadows and fresh breezes. Spyres singing sparkled, and the choruses of gnomes and sylphs were well parted, with almost hypnotic effect. The ballet music was magic. Then everyone marches off merrily in search of the vision Marguerite.
Thus the martial fanfare with which Part 2 begins. For a moment we can luxuriate, such as when Spyres sang the lovely phrase "Que j'aime le silence". Again, Berlioz juggles concepts of time. He doesn't state literally what happens in Marguerite's bedroom. Instead Marguerite (Ann Hallenberg) sings the mock medieval song of the King of Thule. Everlasting love, past, present and future. The Minuet of the Will-o-the-Wisps was particularly vivid, the orchestra creating the sparkling but spikey angles in the music so they felt at once magical and sinister. I swear I could hear a triangle glisten. For the love between Faust and Marguerite is, like a will-o-the wisp, but a momentary flicker of light. Faust has to flee, but Hallenberg gets Marguerite's lovely Romanze "D'amour ardennte flamme", deeper and more intense than the childlike song of the King of Thule. Here, the orchestral melody is specially poignant with antique instruments. Faust and Méphistophélès slug it out in a landscape of forests and mountain peaks: yet again, antique hunting horns evoke a sense of timeless struggle.The children's chorus "Sancta Maria!" in keeping with the mood.
From the horror of the Abyss, the even more Gothic Pandemonium with its demonic choruses. Jagged angles and crashing fanfares. Ominously marvellous singing from the men of the Monteverdi Choir, thus throwing the angelic choruses that follow into even higher relief. Limpidly beautiful harps and strings, and the name "Marguerite" called as if from Heaven.