Philharmonia/Dutoit, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Berlioz called The Damnation of Faust a dramatic legend.

Berlioz called The Damnation of Faust a dramatic legend. That sounds plain enough, but the hybrid nature of its music, like an opera of the imagination, has impelled presentations across the board, from stolid oratorio to full-scale staging. Charles Dutoit, guesting with the Philharmonia to conduct its short Berlioz season, found yet another take. He dispensed with the customary interval at short notice, barred latecomers and had the work played in a single span of just over two hours. It was a shame he didn't give his audience advance warning: there were empty seats in what looked like a sold-out hall. But the pay-off was an experience of breadth and intensity, and absolute clarity of direction.

Its foundation was vocal magnificence at all levels. Combining the London Philharmonic and London Symphony choruses, under the direction of Joseph Cullen, made for a superb instrument that solved at a stroke the usual choral problem of weak tenors and shallow bass tone.

It, admittedly, regularly swamped the orchestra and, just before the end, even more singers arrived as the London Oratory School Choir made a dramatic appearance. The price was worth paying for the chorus's precision and flexibility, and for the unusual thrill of a strong men's chorus.

Numbers did justify themselves at the climax, when Mephistopheles' entourage claimed the soul of Faust: nobody could compete with the brass here; no fault of the performers, since the music has to be played flat-out. Berlioz, usually the perfect judge of things instrumental, must have forgotten that the orchestra would not be buried in a theatre pit.

Solo singing was notably idiomatic. Gregory Kunde's tenor had the full range, as well as stamina. Ruxandra Donose, recently Charlotte in the Royal Opera's Werther, completed as Marguerite a fine double of the two great French mezzo-soprano Goethe roles. To her melting timbre she added concentration, so that the preface to her "King of Thule" ballad was as absorbing as the song itself; glowingly phrased and shaded. As Mephistopheles, David Wilson-Johnson was a suave, insinuating devil, rather than an aggressive one. The lulling of Faust into his fateful dream was as heartfelt as a love song. Henry Waddington made a brief, forthright impact as the student Brander.

Dutoit comes on to the platform looking less a musician than a presidential candidate, but he always transforms into a figure to inspire sureness and exactitude. The playing was bright, sensuous and hauntingly deft. On occasion it was devastatingly powerful, but more often the orchestra flickered and sparkled like the natural phenomena Berlioz wanted to evoke. The sequence from Faust's dream through to the "Dance of the Sylphs", without breaking pace for a second, descended into a magical hush that shared Faust's delight with everybody present.

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