Two events in the past week or so, each presenting something to chew on…
Gergiev thrashes Faust
It’s the first time I’ve had a minute to jot down thoughts on Sunday’s performance of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Barbican. In the meantime, I’ve been reading some of the debate that has swirled around the internet concerning Gergiev’s relationship to Putin and his unfortunate comments on Russia’s ignoble descent into anti-gay hatred. I even began to wonder if he was taking out his frustrations on Berlioz’s dramatic legend, so brash and thunderous was the result.
Admittedly, we were in the second row from the front. Quite thrilling: lovely to watch the strings up close, and fantastic to be so close to the singers. I’m not sure it’s a very representative experience though. Still, it seemed to me a performance that was high on drama, revelling in the sound effects that Berlioz packs into his orchestration, but somehow missing some of the spirituality at the heart of Faust’s tortured soul.
As Faust, Michael Spyres was a revelation compared to my first encounter with him, in La Donna del Lago: a fantastically bright, secure tenor sound, and an ardent portrayal. This wasn’t a Faust that was walking blindly into the fatal choice (even if the moment of actual signature of the document didn’t quite register), and his Invocation to Nature was tour de force stuff.
Mephistopheles was Mirco Palazzi, a replacement for Ildar Abdrazakov, and perhaps a little light of voice and missing the vivd charisma that the role needs to be convincing. Still, it was sung with some sensitivity and attractive tone. Lack of presence is certainly not a charge that could be levelled at Olga Borodina as Marguerite. Her voluminous lower reaches roared through Marguerite’s swooning anxiety, alternating with a top that was better suited to reading the riot act to Radames than whispering sweet nothings. It was tremendous singing, but I’m not sure it was Marguerite. In a different operatic version of the legend, Marthe Schwerlein would certainly have got a run for her money if she’d come knocking for a cup of sugar. Florian Boesch sang fulsomely and suavely as Brander: it was almost a shame he wasn’t Mephisto.
It may have been where we were sitting, with the orchestra planted firmly between us and the chorus, but they sounded slightly too gentle. On occasion, it seemed as well that Gergiev’s tempi were challenging (including in the demonic choruses that rounded off the Ride to the Abyss). The orchestra played gorgeously, really painting the vivid orchestral colours. That Ride to the Abyss was absolutely edge of seat: I practically felt them rush past as the orchestral swell crashed around us. I can’t help feeling, though, that it was a moment, albeit wonderful, in a performance that was slightly unbalanced in favour of the big over the beautiful.
What’s up Wozzeck?
Or perhaps that should have been “what’s down [there]?” We were seeing Keith Warner’s 2002 production of Wozzeck from the left side of the Amphi, marked ‘restricted view’ but normally a great balance of cost and experience. Not this time: Warner decided that the important domestic scenes, in which the relationship of Marie and her son is crucially established, the Drum Major takes his advantage, and around which the Marie-Wozzeck dynamic builds, should happen far downstage left. We hardly saw Mattila for the first hour. Utter stupidity: I never mind a restricted view, missing bits here and there; I do mind having most of the action denied me for most of the opera and not for particularly good reasons.
Anyhow, frankly, I can’t be bothered with Berg. An unutterably shallow view, quite possibly, but there you have it. The final 25 minutes or so were engaging and interesting, but of emotion there was none to be found for me. The shenanigans with the Doctor and the Captain irritated after a while. I have no hesitation in acclaiming the performances as tremendous successes: Keenlyside and Mattila being the intense artists they are, there was no shortage of detail and force in their performances. Other singers – Tomlinson as the Doctor, Gerhard Siegel as Captain, Endrik Wottrich as Drum Major – were also fine and characterful. Elder was customarily dramatic without loss of what tonal beauty the score possesses, and the orchestra played with abandoned finesse. Sorry, it just didn’t really do it for me. Maybe I’ll give it a go again, in a decade or two.