Berlioz’ description of his vast ‘Dramatic Legend’ based on Faust’s pact with the devil (Mephistopheles) as ‘an opera without decor or costume’ is curiously apt when taken in the context of his works specifically written for the opera house.
This revolutionary composer never surpassed the kaleidoscopic colours or the fluidity of atmosphere from sardonic to terrifyingly satanic so brilliantly depicted in the Damnation of Faust. That is probably why fully staged productions of the piece – at least those that I have experienced – seemed totally superfluous. And they failed to ignite the frisson of excitement engendered in Leeds Town Hall with tiers of choristers rising up to the organ pipes above layers of percussion, heavy brass, woodwind, harps and strings.
Costumes and decor were definitely not needed at last Saturday’s thrilling performance. The narrative of Faust’s journey from the Plains of Hungary with the sounds of an advancing army – the famously brassy Hungarian March – Auerbach’s Drinking Cellar in Leipzig, the love affair with Marguerite and the hair raising Ride to the Abyss was revealed in illuminating detail. Simon Wright at the helm of the Orchestra of Opera North, Leeds Festival Chorus, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and St Peter’s Singers demonstrated absolute mastery of atmosphere and structure. The four excellent soloists inhabited their characters – especially bass-baritone David Soar’s insinuating and deceptively charming Mephistopheles. Rising star David Butt Philip’s heroic ringing tenor eloquently conveyed the scholarly but gullible Faust. Mezzo soprano Rachel Kelly’s vulnerable Marguerite was ravishing in her Romance: D’amour l’ardent flamme (the burning flame of love) decorated by a plangent solo cor anglais. The bass Ashley Riches lightened the mood with his animated performance of Brander’s boisterous Song of the Rat.
Whether portraying bawdy peasants, lively students or soldiers, the Choirs had the measure of the complex rhythms and the French text. The choral sound – including a blood curling scream from the sopranos and altos – was frighteningly demonic in the pandemonium scene. It might have proved more spatially effective, however, to separate the Opera North Young Voices and Children’s Chorus as celestial spirits in the final poignant scene, from the main Chorus.
Wharfdale Observer and Telegraph & Argus, 15th May 2018