Lightning, they say, never strikes in the same place twice. If that's the case, then somebody please explain the scorch marks streaked across Strasbourg's Palais de la Musique et des Congrès. Two years ago, it saw a world class line-up give world class performances of Berlioz' epic opera Les Troyens. Now, its Énée and Didon – Michael Spyres and Joyce DiDonato – were reunited under John Nelson as Faust and Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, that not-quite-opera which Berlioz described as a légende dramatique. It lived up to that dramatique billing completely in an account that practically self-combusted.

Michael Spyres, Joyce DiDonato, John Nelson and Nicolas Courjal © Gregory Massat
Michael Spyres, Joyce DiDonato, John Nelson and Nicolas Courjal
© Gregory Massat

The golden tonsils of Michael Spyres are perfectly suited for Berlioz. Dressed in stylish frock coat and flamboyant cuffs, he cuts a dandyish figure, a confident presence but one also completely lost in the moment. Without a score and standing throughout, Spyres submits wholly to the music, often caught in a reverie as Nelson spun magic from the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg. He has a sturdy baritonal base to his voice, but it's his upper register which really thrills, ringing like a bell but also capable of heady voix mixte in his duet with DiDonato's Marguerite. He delivered a gloriously heartfelt “Nature immense”. Spyres' tenor was pushed to its limits – that's Berlioz for you – and he tired a little in the closing stages, but that didn't prevent a terrifying scream of “Horreur!” as his Faust plunged into the chasm.

French bass Nicolas Courjal (Narbal in Troyens) played Faust's nemesis, a suave, sneering Méphistophélès in a blue velvet smoking jacket. It's a voice that doesn't really bloom at the top, which is challenging in a work that really needs a bass-baritone to do full justice to the devil's divine lullaby “Voici des roses”. His performance was full of expression though, a persuasive, insinuating Mephisto, often wearing a wry smile. His sardonic serenade was done with panache, “Devant la maison” fabulously sung accompanied with wicked precision by pizzicato strings.

Nicolas Courjal © Gregory Massat
Nicolas Courjal
© Gregory Massat

Despite the gorgeous aria “D'amour l'ardente flamme”, beautifully duetted with Jean-Michel Crétet's cor anglais obbligato, Marguerite doesn't have an especially large role in proceedings. But that didn't stop Joyce DiDonato getting star billing here. Her Marguerite was mellifluously sung, cooing in the love duet, her mezzo fluttering softly at the top. Alexander Duhamel's grainy bass-baritone made for a swaggering Brander, the choral Amens from the Gulbenkian Choir after his drunken Song of the Rat nasally inebriated. All evening, the chorus sang lustily in the narrow funnel at the back of the Salle Érasme.

Joyce DiDonato and John Nelson © Gregory Massat
Joyce DiDonato and John Nelson
© Gregory Massat

Nelson loves playing Berlioz with this orchestra, telling me that, being in the Alsace, “they have the colour of the best French orchestras and the discipline of the Germans”. It's a winning combination. Immediately, one noticed the warm sheen of the violas, who usher in the work. Lowering horns signalled the Hungarian March, here a glittering orchestral showpiece, while the six harps twinkled through the Ballet des sylphs. The strings are superb, melting violins swooning as Marguerite appeared, while Benjamin Boura's coppery solo viola entwined with DiDonato's silvery mezzo in the lilting Balled, “Autrefois, un roi de Thulé”. Wisps of sulphur gleamed in the devilish horns, while flute and piccolos flickered and fanned the flames. Tubas growled monstrously in a a white knuckle Ride to the Abyss.

Sometimes standing, sometimes seated, Nelson wove Berlioz' fantastical score miraculously and meticulously, his hands sewing an invisible thread. Eventually, a heavenly light at the back of the hall illuminated Les Petits Chanteurs de Strasbourg and the Maîtrise de l'Opéra national du Rhin, the angelic chorus welcoming Marguerite's soul, a heavenly way to mark the 150th anniversary of Berlioz' death.


Mark’s press trip to Strasbourg was funded by Nicky Thomas Media

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