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Review: The Damnation of Faust at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 10 Feb 2019, 5:00pm

Freely adapted from Goethe, The Damnation of Faust insinuates, idles, roars, croons, swells, bores, hectors, fascinates and dazzles. Berlioz’s 1846 “légende dramatique” is a gluttonous, garrulous, attention-seeking guest in any concert hall. Not quite an opera, it plays almost as cinema: zoom, pan, fade, jump-cut. For each sweet blade of new grass or gently scudding cloud that we hear in the score, there is the leathery skitter of a demonic wing, a splatter of blood and the rattle of dancing bones.

Mark Elder’s performance with the Hallé, an orchestra whose association with Berlioz stretches back to its founder’s friendship with the composer, comfortably embraced the most spare, delicate and bombastic aspects of this gothic work. The cool curve of unaccompanied violas, cellos or violins, and the tender cor anglais solo, were as vital as the tangy rustic drones, the tight-breeched, shoulders-back, musket-carrying swagger of the Marche hongroise and the lusty drinking songs of Hungarian peasants and German students (later will-o’-the-wisps, gnomes, sylphs, penitents, demons and angels).

With the Hallé Choir joined by men from the London Philharmonic Choir and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and 100 local children, this was as much a choral showpiece as an orchestral one. The discipline of articulation and diction was first rate. Elder allows, rather than encourages, natural rubato, deftly picking up any slack with a beat that is as neat as his string players’ spiccato.

Amid the hypnotic strangeness of harp harmonics, the blister of tuba and ophicleide, the pitch-black roll of the bass drum and the tart mockery of the three piccolos, the solo vocal performances were compelling: Rachel Kelly’s Marguerite, driven wild with love and shame; David Soar’s easy, cynical Brander; Laurent Naouri’s charming, terrifying Méphistophélès; David Butt Philip’s gleaming, yearning Faust, whose ennui, like that of Werther and Onegin, is the engine of this tragedy.

Anna Picard

Published February 12 2019

Anna Picard The Times