Sir Simon Rattle pulled off a remarkably vigorous account of The Damnation of Faust, all the performers producing an electrifying response to both Berlioz and the conductor – any thoughts about the Barbican Hall’s blunt acoustic and cramped space simply vanished. That said, proximity was a contributory factor in my response to Bryan Hymel whose heroic tenor remained exactly that throughout. This was a virile and eager Faust who, from his initial musing on Spring (with little sense of solitude despite the plaintive violas) until his descent into Hell, threw all his vocal strength into the role – finding few opportunities for a more intimate, lyrical approach and which would have added considerably to his portrayal. He sandblasted his way through the upper reaches of the love-duet, which though ardent seemed determined to make the high C-sharps reach the back of the venue; ‘Nature immense, however, was majestic.
Christopher Purves, replacing Gerald Finley, was compelling as Mephistopheles, bringing devilish charm and mocking smiles – ‘Serenade’ (with light-as-air pizzicatos) and ‘Song of the Flea’ were well characterised and, if one might have wanted less refinement at times, there was musicality in spades and there was no doubting his dramatic presence. If an under-projected Gábor Bretz made little impact in his cameo role as Brander, then a mellifluous Karen Cargill as Marguerite was an affecting and warm-toned fantasy for Faust. Her two arias captivated and drew eloquent support from Alexander Zemtsov (viola) and then Christine Pendrill (cor anglais).
The LSO played like devils; standout moments included a stirring and well-paced ‘Hungarian March’, a gossamer ‘Waltz of the Sylphs’ and an airy ‘Minuet of the Will-o’-the-Wisps’. Playing of this intensity and commitment is a remarkable sign of things to come under Rattle, and he gathered Berlioz’s episodic design into a theatrical whole. Further excitement derived from the fiercely energetic singing of the London Symphony Chorus, whether as tavern-drinkers, nymphs, peasants, soldiers or students, and its sense of ensemble was second to none. Crowning this performance was an intensely moving vision of Marguerite entering Heaven (four harps here) as the Tiffin choristers emerged from the rear stalls, a coup de théâtre that brought a lump to the throat.