2019 has already been a good year for Damnations thanks to the Berlioz anniversary. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s contribution saw Edward Gardner lead an unfailingly excellent cast of soloists through the epic work with thrilling support from the CBSO Chorus.

Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

Gardner conducted the operatic setting of the work eight years ago in Terry Gilliam’s wacky staging at English National Opera, so there was never any doubt that this performance would have all the requisite drama. The pacing seemed to set each component part in its rightful place within the overall context of a steady descent into hell. There was humour, tragedy and beauty in abundant measure at the appropriate moments, but there was also a sense of each of the four parts steadily reaching a heady climax, with the same pattern applying to the work as a whole.

The greatest joy of the evening was the complex but compellingly realised relationship between Saimir Pirgu’s titular character and Joshua Bloom’s Méphistophélès. Within the confines of a front-of-stage concert performance, they did all they could do utilise the available space and add a layer of physical drama on top of singing of the highest quality. Pirgu did a good impression of a world-weary, unfulfilled scholar in Part 1, and in toying with taking poison there was moving despair. He sang with a rich, boldly projected tone, blossoming in the passionate duet with Christine Rice’s elegant Marguerite in Part 3, and collapsing with convincing horror at the climax of Part 4. Opposite him, Bloom was a magnificent Mephisto, providing a rich characterisation which was generally gleefully diabolical rather than malignantly evil. He wandered on stage with hands in pockets, dressed all in black opposite Pirgu’s tails, and from the outset filled the hall with a huge sound and sardonic delight in his interactions with Faust and the chorus. The end of Part 2 saw Bloom leading Pirgu into the choir stalls, lurching drunkenly among the students’ Gaudeamus with his arm around Pirgu’s shoulder. He saved his most grimly evil moment until the very last, proclaiming himself victor over Faust with terrifying relish.

The other solo contributions were no less convincing. Rice sang Marguerite’s Ballad of the King of Thule with attractive warmth, and her duet with Faust was lusciously spacious, although her diction lapsed momentarily. Božidar Smiljanić staggered on stage for his brief appearance as Brander, and sang his Tale of the Rat with vigour.

The CBSO Chorus fulfilled each of their many and varied roles with thrilling commitment, from gutsy peasants to howling demons via penitent worshippers and swaying drunkards. The men of the chorus were particularly excellent in filling the hall with enormous sound, making for some uproarious highlights in the Amen fugue and the ends of Parts 2 and 3. The very last minutes of the evening were sung with crystalline purity by the CBSO Youth and Children’s Choruses, after filing silently into the choir stalls.

The orchestra provided further rich characterisation of its own as well as strong support for the singers. There were strong solo efforts from viola, oboe and cor anglais, and the brassy outbursts in the Pandemonium were attached with gusto. Gardner maintained a strong control of balance, but also allowed his orchestra to rip loose when needed. The softer passages were accompanied with silken elegance, such as in Marguerite’s ballad, no doubt helped by the strings having been pared down by a desk. He whipped his forces up into a thrilling frenzy for the gallop through the abyss, pushed along at a breathless pace and culminating in some towering outbursts. It made for a fitting climax to a memorable performance and season finale.