La Damnation de Faust (concert version) - LSO - Barbican, 3 November 2013
Has Valery Gergiev has really sold his soul to Satan? The devil should demand a refund if he wants to hold on to his reputation for having all the best tunes. This was a tired and erratic display in which the properly-rehearsed passages were few and far between, style was absent, and the only compensations were vocal.
Chief amongst these was Michael Spyres' near-faultless Faust. This must have been what Berlioz had in mind when he wrote the part, a flinty penetrating tenor, strong and even throughout its wide range, weighty but nimble. Singing without a score (the only one to do so) proved more than a feat of memory - Spyres has the part completely under his skin. And while his accent would never convince a native, his French was so clear and correct the surtitles became superfluous (good job, as his head was blocking my view anyway). A couple of shaky top notes revealed the effort in their attainment, but otherwise this was as perfect a performance as you could hope for. Folks, he was better in this part than Jonas Kaufmann.
The programme notes suggested Spyres will be back at the Royal Opera House some time, presumably after his Benvenuto Cellini for ENO (which his involvement would make unmissable if Terry Gilliam's hadn't already done so). With luck he may break the stranglehold Hymel seems to have over the French repertoire - and a bit of Rossini wouldn't go amiss either.
Some stylish singing elsewhere was blighted by casting errors.
The tenorino-sized Italian Mirco Palazzi made an unlikely-looking Mephistopheles, but the real problem was his lightweight bass, simply unsuited to the dramatic demands of the role. Everything that emerged was musical and elegant, but about as sinister and threatening as a puppy in a party hat. I would have saved Palazzi for the bel canto firecrackers and gone for a heftier, more dramatic voice.
The distinguished Lieder singer Florian Boesch offered more of the same, recrafting Brander's coarse drinking song into an exquisitely-wrought morsel of word-painting technique.
I'm saving the best/worst for last. Stomping in with trowelled-on Cleopatra eyes and flesh-gouging acrylic extensions, Olga Borodina didn't even need to move her pursed lips to prove she is not the obvious choice for the virginal and credulous Marguerite. But Borodina (as she refers to herself in interviews) is nothing if not a trouper. Of course this is not the natural territory of one born to eat tenors for breakfast - and she knows it - but she gave the role her best. Alternating an almost alarmingly fruity lower register with a scouring top, she sang with affecting sensitivity if predictably smudged French. Gergiev is lucky he can call on her, but next time he needs to offer her something worthy of her talents.
He earns another black mark for the limp efforts of the London Symphony Chorus, whose various roles were undifferentiated and blandly put across.
The performance will be repeated on 6 November, and is worth checking out for Spyres and Borodina alone.