La Damnation de Faust - LSO / Gergiev - Barbican 22 September 2009
A curious evening that caught fire intermittently, but never really took off. Gergiev’s preferred preapration method – rehearse the corners, wing the straights - can produce stunning results in slow-burn symphonies. But it’s fundamentally unsuited to the desperately shoehorned ragbag of ideas (“Let's all improvise a fugue!”) that is La damnation de Faust. Faust’s final ride to the abyss truly burnt with the flames of hell, but a few manicured details aside, the first half was largely directionless and often surprisingly (for Gergiev) tentative. All the beauty and delicacy of the woodwind playing couldn’t compensate for a lack of purpose.
The problems could have been compounded when the scheduled Méphistophélès, Thomas Quasthoff, pulled out due to illness on the morning of the show. But Willard White, flown in from Copenhagen, was a magnificent replacement, despite the twinkle in his eye warning his bluster and beguilements shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Joyce DiDonato, in a gorgeous cornflower gown and tumbling curls, sang beautifully but seemed not entirely at home in the Berlioz idiom. Her Marguerite had the radiant purity of youth but not the ardour that Susan Graham can bring to the part.
Florian Boesch almost stole the show as Brander, but Michael Schade’s Faust was a disappointment. He placed notes accurately and words carefully in his none too intelligible French, but his hard nasal tone is too unvarying and too unyielding in this part. What a pity there was so much of it. The London Symphony Chorus too had a long and tricky sing. They managed heroically, if with more gusto than finesse - for which Gergiev’s flutterfingered non-beat was not entirely to blame.
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