“I was rooting for Mephistopheles and contemptuous of Faust” quoth Hannibal Lecter in one of the more recent adaptations of literature’s infamous cannibal, words which came to mind during the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Berlioz La Damnation de Faust.  One would shy away from endorsing the words of a serial killer, particularly given the excellent Faust we were given by John Irvin – a performance entirely undeserving of any contempt – but one could not be anywhere but entirely in the camp of the Hell, embodied in the bekilted person of Christopher Purves who was having a terrific time on the stage.

John Irvin and Christopher Purves with Edward Gardner and the LPO
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Damnation is one of those pleasingly unclassifiable works which require the composer to invent their own category, in this case a légende dramatique. With four soloists, a sizeable orchestra and a whacking great seven-part chorus with a children's chorus on the side, it’s a beast which melds opera, oratorio, song and symphony. There are stagings – Berlioz saw the first and felt that the stage technology of the time wasn’t up to the work – but there’s something immensely satisfying in seeing it in its true concert setting and in the hands of a good cast of singers there is drama aplenty.

Irvin was a latecomer to the concert, stepping in for an indisposed David Junghoon Kim, though one wouldn’t have known from the quality of his performance. Irvin deployed his bright tenor in an elegiac reading of the role which showed a strong sense of the text. He doesn’t possess the largest of voices, but it’s incisive and rose over the orchestra. He acted the part well and was far from score-bound; a little more rapture in the voice in Part 2 after his contemplating suicide was the only thing missing. 

Karen Cargill sang Marguerite with a moving plangency; her mezzo-soprano has the quality of Baileys: thick and creamy, decidedly warming. With some clean higher notes and clear articulation, she made her sweetly sung “D'amour l'ardente flamme” one of the evening’s highlights. Jonathan Lemalu’s humorous appearance as Brander, he of the poisoned rat, was a terrific moment of comic value and underscored a fine vocal technique. 

Karen Cargill, John Irvin and Edward Gardner
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

It was Purves, however, who held the stage as classical music’s favourite devil. He oozed charisma as Méphistophélès, caressing and savouring the text with his velvety bass-baritone, the higher register showing a touch of grain. From his delightfully hyperbolic dismay at the Amen fugue to a cheery finger waved at Edward Gardner, he captivated, such an obvious creature of the stage. Only in his final lines was it clear in how much seductive allure he had been covering his phrases previously; as he engaged with the hoards of hell, Purves stripped all warmth from the voice, replacing it with a cold metallic gleam.

Uniting them all, Principal Conductor Edward Gardner was in complete control of his forces, leading the LPO in a richly textured reading of the score, abundant in both detail and drama. Climaxes were thrilling, but there was as much to enjoy in the quieter moments; of particular note were the superb solos by Sue Böhling (cor anglais) and Richard Waters (viola). The brass sounded excellent and Gardner’s grip on the orchestra – firm, but not throttling – ensured that the unity of approach was entirely clear. The assorted choruses (the London Youth Choirs and reinforcements from the LSC joined the LPC) were on rousing and mellifluous form, the damnation of Faust and the ascension of Marguerite seeing them at their best. This was an evening of music-making at the highest level; a concert that one felt privileged to hear.