Damnation of Faust (Concert Performance) London, October 2000

A Faustian pact with Colin Davis
Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 17 October 2000

Damnation of Faust
Barbican, London
Rating: ****

Colin Davis's monumental, year-long Berlioz Odyssey has finally reached
The Damnation of Faust, one of the composer's greatest, if most
perplexing works. Berlioz took Goethe as his source, though his
adaptation is nothing if not radical. A vague pall of decadence hangs
over the piece, pre-empting Baudelaire and the relentless moral
questioning of the late 19th century.

Goethe redeems his Faust through love. Berlioz exposes him to a series
of sensually evoked artificial paradises which fail to satisfy his
selfish thirst for experience, then sends him ironically hurtling to the
abyss as moral awareness begins to dawn. Faust's consignment of his soul
to Mephistopheles coincides with his first altruistic act, namely his
decision to save the life of Marguerite whom he has ruined.

It's a work with a bleak, mordant vision, couched in music of sensual
beauty and garish violence, which serves throughout to befuddle the
listener as it does its hero. No one has ever penetrated its ambivalent
heart of darkness as well as Davis, the Berlioz conductor par
excellence, who takes us on a roller-coaster ride to hell, only pausing
to summon up occasional landscapes of sexual and emotional beauty.

Berlioz has frequently been described as episodic, but here you're swept
away by the inexorability of it all, by the relentless dramatic logic
that holds you firmly in its grip. The London Symphony Orchestra respond
to him with playing of restless, flickering eloquence that gleams with
the deceptive allure of infernal fire. It's a magisterial achievement,
in short, though it's not achieved without a few peripheral problems.

The London Symphony Chorus sings with supreme intelligence and a sense
of bristling excitement, though occasionally the men sound too few in
number, while the tenors, thrilling at full throttle, are less assured
in quieter passages. I also had doubts about Davis's decision to
encourage "silly voices" and coarse, open-vowelled pronunciation for the
proletarian choruses - the drinkers in Luther's tavern, the peasant
women praying at the wayside shrine.

The soloists aren't always quite ideally matched, the weak link being
the Albanian mezzo Enkelejda Shkosa as Marguerite. It's a fabulous
voice, no question, but she's ultimately miscast - there's
voluptuousness in the tone that suggests sexual knowledge from the
outset rather than questioning innocence in danger of destruction.

In her love scenes with Giuseppe Sabbatini's Faust, there is, however, a
powerful erotic charge. He, at this point, making alarming noises, is a
rutting animal. Elsewhere, he's athletic and virile rather than
mellifluous, very much the Byronic, existential rebel rather than the
usual self-pitying drip. Opposite him is the Mephistopheles of Michele
Pertusi, taking on the role shortly after his awkward incarnation of
Hoffmann's demonic nemesis at Covent Garden. He's happier here, avoiding
the self-conscious irony that marred his Opera House performances.

His Mephistopheles is initially seductive, his voice hovering round "my
beloved Faust" with seditious, caressing beauty. Later, he eggs Faust on
with brutal obscenity. He's pretty stunning throughout, turning in a
disquieting, enthralling performance at the centre of a disquieting,
enthralling evening.


This page was last updated on: July 6, 2003