The Damnation of Faust – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Composer: Hector Berlioz

Conductor: Edward Gardner

Reviewer: Tim Harding

The Damnation of Faust is a curious beast; a “dramatic legend” conceived by the composer as a piece for the concert hall, not the opera house, and yet requiring fully realized dramatic performances from singers and orchestra. Under the baton of Edward Gardner, the familiar story of the scientist Faust who sells his soul to the Devil to rescue his beloved Marguerite is brought thrillingly to life by the combined forces of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, their three choirs and a fine line up of soloists.

If the evening gets off to a slightly slow start this is as much to do with Berlioz’s typically odd structure in Part 1 as to the performance. Gradually, the orchestra and tenor Saimir Pirgu warm to their roles, and by the time Joshua Bloom glides onto the platform as the suave, charismatic Méphistophélès we know we were in safe hands.

Faust is not the most rewarding of characters (as we know, the Devil always gets the best tunes!) but Pirgu throws himself into the role wholeheartedly, displaying a fine bel canto line throughout his voice. If the very topmost notes show some sign of tension, his finely blended duet with Christine Rice’s fine Marguerite is ensemble singing of the highest quality. Rice also uses her warm honeyed mezzo in an affecting performance of the King of Thule, a rare welcome moment of stillness in the second half of Berlioz’s boisterous work.

Possessing a commanding bass, as well as charm and expression to spare, Bloom is clearly in his devilish element throughout. A charismatic performer, he commands the hall and leads the men of the CBSO chorus, who are given a real showcase in Berlioz’s characterful writing in several scenes of utterly thrilling choral performance.

The virtuosity of the orchestra is shown many times in Berlioz’s typically vivid orchestration, fluttering woodwind and harps, grunting bassoons and horns, martial brass and lyrical strings all paint pictures of Wisps and demons, soldiers and peasants. Add to this the warm voices of the ladies’ chorus and the sublime addition of the Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus for the final redemption of Marguerite, and this is a vibrant performance of a technically demanding but hugely rewarding concert piece. Lush and romantic, caustic and devilishly charismatic, this evening has it all.

Reviewed on 26 June 2019 | Image: Benjamin Ealovega

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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