“Diff! Diff! Belzébuth, Belphégor, Astaroth, Méphisto!” Once the hissing demons had greeted Méphistophélès, Faust’s soul successfully delivered after their Ride into the Abyss, calm was restored to the Barbican Hall. If we couldn’t join the angels as Marguerite was welcomed into heaven, then the angels could descend to us. Just shy of a hundred children from the Tiffin Choirs filed noiselessly into the Stalls to help deliver the celestial epilogue. Sir Simon Rattle, turning to face us, smiled beatifically at his cherubic charges. With rippling harps accompanying this heavenly host, it wasn’t just Karen Cargill (Marguerite) holding back the tears.

<i>La Damnation de Faust</i> © Doug Peters | PA Wire
La Damnation de Faust
© Doug Peters | PA Wire

Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust defies categorisation. It doesn’t give a fig whether it’s an opera or a cantata or a symphonic poem. It could be described as “theatre of the imagination”, a wild musical spin through Goethe’s dramatic poem. The London Symphony Orchestra’s pedigree in Berlioz is second to none, going back to Sir Colin Davis’ passionate advocacy in the 1970s, so Faust acted as the perfect showcase as one of the major events in its “This is Rattle” festival to launch Rattle’s tenure as its new music director. Rattle’s Berlioz isn’t quite as adoring as Sir Colin’s, but there was a propulsive urgency to this performance which often delighted and thrilled.

Bryan Hymel and Sir Simon Rattle © Doug Peters | PA Wire
Bryan Hymel and Sir Simon Rattle
© Doug Peters | PA Wire

From the yearning viola phrases which open the scene as the ageing scholar muses on his life to the sighing woodwinds as Marguerite is admitted to heaven, Rattle urged his new charges on, playing the LSO like a precision instrument, teasing details with his hands, prodding entries with his baton. There was the occasional over-fussy moment – exaggerated Luftpause in an otherwise swaggering Hungarian March – but the orchestral playing was magnificent. Highlights included the pizzicatos accompanying the band of students and soldiers at the end of Part 2, merrily bouncing and strutting, and the gruff, rosiny double basses which provided a steady anchor. The London Symphony Chorus was at its ebullient best, Rattle and Gábor Bretz’s Brander competing with each other to conduct the carousing in the tavern with its drunken fugal Amens.

Bryan Hymel was an immediately appealing Faust, his bright, open tenor ringing through the hall with ease despite a moment or two of tightness at the very top of his register. Karen Cargill sang a radiant Marguerite, her "D'amour l'ardente flamme" as she awaits Faust’s return glowing in honey and amber hues, prefaced by a willowy cor anglais solo from Christine Pendrill. Cargill and Hymel were passionate in duet.

Karen Cargill and Bryan Hymel © Doug Peters | PA Wire
Karen Cargill and Bryan Hymel
© Doug Peters | PA Wire

It was understandable that Christopher Purves had his nose to the score as Méphistophélès, the baritone replacing Gerald Finley for these two performances at short notice. He attacked the role with devilish relish, though and some pungent, if not always perfect, French. Purves joined the trombones to deliver “Voici des roses”, marred by the odd moment of hoarseness, while a trio of flickering piccolos (Berlioz’s idea of hell?) helped him summon spirits to dupe Marguerite. The devil really does get the best tunes and Rattle ensured a demonic gallop into hell before that celestial finale.