Berlioz – La Damnation de Faust
Faust – Charles Castronovo
Marguerite – Joyce DiDonato
Méphistophélès – Ludovic Tézier
Brander – Edwin Crossley-Mercer
Kinderchor der Oper Stuttgart, Herren des Philharmonia Chors Wien, Staatsopernchor Stuttgart, Berliner Philharmoniker / Simon Rattle.
Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden. Sunday, March 29th, 2015.
The Berliner Philharmoniker have held their annual Easter residency in Baden-Baden since 2013. It’s a large house, seating 2500 people. The acoustics are a little on the dry side but the Philharmoniker filled it admirably. This was a larger than life performance, filled out in bold, primary colours. The depth of their string tone was absolutely superb, the brass full and golden and the woodwinds highly characterful. This was clearly an orchestra at the top of their game and the effortless virtuosity they offered us was truly remarkable. Indeed, this is one of the best things I have heard Simon Rattle do with them in a while. Revelling in Berlioz’ quirkiness he brought so much of the score to life, bringing out detail that is so often missed. For example in ‘d’amour l’ardente flamme’ he brought out the rhythm of Marguerite’s heartbeat as portrayed in the music in a way I have never heard it done before. The sound world also benefited from his decision to ask the strings to vary their use of vibrato from nothing at times to full vibrato. He also obtained incredibly soft playing of supreme precision from his players in ‘merci doux crépuscule’ and a stunningly concentrated ‘d’amour l’ardente flamme’. Likewise the ride to the abyss culminated in an enormous noise with the gentlemen of the chorus riding the orchestral tumult most impressively. Tempi felt absolutely right and the entire evening fled by.
Charles Castronovo was a highly lyrical Faust and worked extremely well with Rattle’s highly supportive conducting. His French is superlative – his diction was so clear you could take dictation from it, but more than that, he knew how to make every word count. Combined with highly poetic phrasing, he filled the role of the academic turned romantic lover to perfection. What was really remarkable was his ravishing soft singing. He pulled back the tone to a fine thread in ‘merci doux crépuscule’ and that ascending scale in the love duet, which so often sounds like the tenor screaming at the mezzo, was lovingly phrased and completely secure. The voice also opens up quite wonderfully at the top. An outstanding performance that made me hope to hear his Werther one day.
I enjoyed Ludovic Tézier very much in the Munich Forza but unfortunately tonight I was somewhat disappointed. The quality of the voice is undeniable, everything was in place, there were no issues with the tessitura, tuning was spot on and it was absolutely secure. Yet Méphistophélès is a fantastic role precisely because Berlioz’ text gives the singer so much to work with. So many nuances went missing and the phrasing was unimaginative. He did give us a beautifully supported ‘voici des roses’ but I longed for him to make something out of the text. Edwin Crossley-Mercer’s Brander did make something of the text and his song of the rat was nicely done.
Joyce DiDonato is a singer who has given me much pleasure in the French repertoire over the years and I was very much looking forward to hearing her tonight. Unfortunately, her intonation wasn’t always spot on and diction was on the foggy side. Her ‘autrefois un roi de Thulé’ was sung with the exact simplicity it needed and ‘d’amour l’ardente flamme’ struck the right balance of melancholy, disappointment and hope. If only the diction had been slightly sharper it would have been devastating. It felt to me that she was privileging the line over the words but she really did spin some beautiful lines.
The choruses after a somewhat shaky start, with ensemble not quite unanimous in the ‘ronde des paysans’, gave a very good account of themselves. As I mentioned above, the gentlemen, reinforced by singers from Vienna, were staggering in the way they rode the Berliner Philharmoniker at full blast. The entire chorus sang in impeccable French, with great amplitude and good blend whether as students, drinkers, peasants or demons. Rattle cleverly positioned the children’s chorus at the front of the stage for the final scene. So often, they are unheard but here they capped the texture quite wonderfully and the tuning was immaculate.
La Damnation de Faust is a work that I love and I would go so far to say that in many ways this was the finest performance of it I have heard. The conducting was highly imaginative and revelled in Berlioz’ originality. It was superlatively played by an orchestra at the very top of its game and we were offered choral singing of excellent discipline and blend. This was the first of a number of performances both in Baden-Baden and also in Berlin and it may well be that some of the solo performances might settle in more as the run goes on. It was however capped by a lyrical and revelatory assumption of the title role by a consummate stylist who really knows how to make the union of language and music work. A remarkable evening.