BERLIOZ La Damnation de Faust (Roth)
This concert performance from Versailles’ Opéra Royal last November is a curio – almost perfection sits alongside over-cleanness and lack of drama, an almost Karajan-like tidying-up of corners. Roth knows the piece well. Yet, for an ‘original instrument’ performance, he serves up disappointingly few revelations of timbre and balance, or indeed of the sheer anarchy of sound to which the maturing Berlioz became so addicted.
On the plus side, Frédéric Caillierez’s filming of what remains (refreshingly) a concert on stage resists the temptation either to send his cameras in pursuit of the nooks and crannies of the Baroque-period scenic hangings or to make them act like follow-spots on the solo singers. And the singing itself could hardly be bettered.
The choir may be a century beyond their habitual repertoire but their enunciation and use of text are superb without over-acting. (No children’s voices join, however, for the final Apotheosis.) Among the soloists, Anna Caterina Antonacci works with Roth to achieve a reading of Marguerite’s scenes that will remind some listeners of the achievement of Anna Reynolds and Frank Shipway in Forest Philharmonic concerts of the 1970s. It’s hard to imagine the part of Faust’s rejected love better achieved as drama through singing.
Her male colleagues are no less distinguished. Pride in his knowledge – his superiority to mere mortals – is the distinguishing factor of Nicolas Courjal’s laid-back Méphistophélès. As with Antonacci, there’s no trace of sentiment or melodrama; he’s just pure cool evil. Vidal’s Faust, more dependent on his score than his colleagues, is the archetype of the suddenly impassioned young geek – no hero here, definitely a philosopher, if not an old one. The Brander is no slouch either.
So all may seem roses. But Roth’s handling of the score’s first three ‘Parties’ may be too Romantic (and slow) for some – he rarely looks behind comedy in Auerbach’s tavern or romance in the scenes surrounding Marguerite. There’s a distinct lack of ‘look out! He’s behind you’ tension in the master/devil relationship. And that affects the playing – excellent as it is – of Les Siècles. The story’s very clear and undecorated but we’re rarely gripped by it – by the beautiful singing, yes, but not the drama. Technically the release is excellent in terms of sound, vision and presentation. As a performance, Antonacci excepted, it does not better older rivals.