Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust is difficult to categorize. Called a “légende dramatique” – a dramatic legend – by its composer, Faust is the result of the composer's fascination with Goethe's immense work of the same name, and premiered in 1846 at Paris' Opéra-Comique. Not initially a success, it has since transcended to the heights of the operatic repertory, and on Friday, the Berliner Philharmoniker, led by Sir Simon Rattle, performed the piece in concert format at its home base in Berlin. With Charles Castronovo in the title role and Joyce DiDonato, Ludovic Tézier and Florian Boesch as lover, devil, and drunkard, respectively, La Damnation de Faust proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening of fine music making.

Ludovic Tézier © Elie Ruderman
Ludovic Tézier
© Elie Ruderman

Charles Castronovo cut a fine figure as the doctor who makes a deal with the devil. With pomaded hair and a suit so perfectly tailored that he seemed to have fallen out of a fashion ad, Castronovo sang with an elegance and clarity that richly realized Berlioz's music. His Invocation à la nature rang out into the concert hall, and in his final duet with Marguerite, he reached dazzling top notes. His Méphistophélès was Ludivic Tézier, who nailed the demon's insouciance and dark humour with glamorous singing and devil-may-care bonhomie. It is difficult to bring across malevolence in a concert setting, but Tézier managed it in spades.

As Brander, the student who sings a rather spooky song about a rat in a kitchen, Florian Boesch pulled off a wonderful comic stunt by showing up onstage with a beer glass and a stagger. His singing was impeccable, and despite it being a concert setting, it was clear to the audience that we had been transported to a tavern.

The highlight of the night, though, was Joyce DiDonato as Marguerite. Wearing a gorgeous green frock and swaying to the music, DiDonato sang with beauty that grabs you by the throat. “Le roi de Thule” was sung with great elegance,  and “D'amour, l'ardent flamme” with intense longing. The tragedy here is that Marguerite does not get nearly the amount of stage time that she deserves, but DiDonato made the most of it.

La Damnation de Faust relies heavily on an excellent choir and orchestra. The Rundfunkchor Berlin rose admirably to the occasion, matching the moods Berlioz sets with ease and agility. Beneath it all, and more than a character in its own right, was the Berliner Philharmoniker, which swooped and soared and whispered as the case may be. This excellence culminated in a chilling chase and jubilation as Faust sold himself to Méphistophélès without a backward glance. And then the horror went out of the music as Marguerite ascended to heaven, and the audience was left howling their approval as the musicians took bow after bow. It was an evening to remember.