Big Hallé events, usually involving huge choral and orchestral forces, have become red letter events in Manchester. This stellar early evening Damnation of Faust took its place among the much lauded Wagner operas and Elgar oratorios of recent years. A combination of exceptional solo and choral contributions, thrilling orchestral playing and sound dramatic tempo made for an overwhelming account of Berlioz’s wacky opera for the concert hall.

Rachel Kelly
© Gerard Collett

In the two central roles, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri (Méphistophélès) and tenor David Butt Philip (Faust) were utterly convincing as gleefully sardonic tempter and troubled academic. Naouri’s performance was a joy to behold both musically and dramatically. He filled the hall seemingly effortlessly with his rich sound, even when blithely explaining Marguerite’s fate to Faust with brilliant nonchalance, seated with legs idly crossed. As effective master of the chorus in their roles as drunkards, demons and the damned, he interacted enthusiastically with the masses choral forces, beckoning them to their feet with a casual wave of the hand. Opposite him, David Butt Philip charted a convincing transition from world-weary scholar to willing puppet in the title role. He sang with remarkable stamina in the taxing role, managing the stratospherically high demands of Part 3 was apparent ease and keeping enough in the tank for some huge outbursts during his descent to hell. Elsewhere, his gentle vocal control made for a movingly attractive duet with Rachel Kelly’s Marguerite. Stepping in at very short notice for an indisposed Rinat Shaham, Kelly sang with delicate elegance and unwavering beauty of sound, most of all in an exquisitely gentle ballad about the King of Thule. David Soar’s Brander was an entertaining contrast in his Song of the Rat, delivered with gusto and laconic good heart.

David Butt Philip
© Andrew Staples

The combined choral forces of the Hallé Choir, Children’s Choir and Youth Training Choir plus men from the London and Leeds Philharmonic Choruses gave one of the most thrilling choral performances I have witnessed on a concert stage. The singing was remarkably unwavering clear in diction for such large numbers (332 by my count), and while their sound was abundantly attractive in a huge Easter Hymn, they entered the spirit of the piece was thrilling aplomb at every opportunity. In the bawdy Auerbach drinking songs of Part 2 they swayed with convincing insobriety in the Choir Stalls, while the earlier peasant tunes seemed to find great fun in the bucolic cries of “Landerira”. The augmentation of the chorus with supplementary tenors and basses was a shrewd move, making for a superbly thrilling demonic chorus of the final scene, each cry of “Has!” thrown out into the auditorium with renewed vigour. However, the passage which will live longest in the memory was the profoundly moving redemption provided by the children's and youth choirs from the aisles of the Stalls.

The Hallé, embellished for the occasion with a full sextet of harps, four timpanists and ophicleide, played their own dramatic roles with enormous spirit, whether leaping and scratching in the Part 1 Song of the Flea or galloping through the final minutes. Directing with cool economy of gesture, Sir Mark Elder had the strings play with an attractively lean sound thanks to an ultra-sparing approach to vibrato. Tempi were generally measured, but each scene took its place within the compelling dramatic arc of the work as a whole.

We can hope that this Damnation will be committed to disc; until then, the radio broadcast in March will have to suffice.

Read our interview with Sir Mark Elder about Berlioz' Damnation de Faust