Compositions: La Damnation de Faust
Performers: Michael Spyres t, Joyce DiDonato ms, Nicolas Courjal b, Alexandre Duhamel bar, Coro Gulbenkian, Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, John Nelson cond
Catalogue Number: Erato 9029541735 (2CD)
La Damnation de Faust is Berlioz at his most hallucinatory. There have been fine recordings of this strange piece over the years but none convey its peculiar flickering cinematic atmosphere as vividly as Colin Davis’ recordings, until now. John Nelson’s credentials as a Berlioz specialist are formidable, as evident from the welcome his Les Troyens received, so I was delighted he rounded up his usual suspects for this marvellous recording.
Michael Spyres’ Faust is near ideal, with exactly the right weight of golden tone and fearless approach to the cruel demands of the role – a remarkable feat and a masterclass in style. Nicolas Courjal’s Méphistophélès is monstrously dangerous without resorting to pantomime, not giving the game away in the Song of the Flea and a sly Serenade. And then there’s Joyce DiDonato’s Marguerite – exquisitely sung with just the right plaintive tremor to hint at her prescient awareness of her tragic fate. D’amour l’ardente flamme melts the heart but remains firmly in character rather than a plushy indulgence.
Splendid commitment from the Coro Gulbenkian in their various guises as peasants, soldiers, drunkards, demons and penitents. The orchestra revels in Berlioz’s extraordinary visions with exemplary playing and just the right Gallic tang. Nelson’s pacing is spot on – that extraordinary opening sequence sweeping us into the narrative. He absolutely nails the Ride to the Abyss.