Adam Lau and Michèle Losier make their debuts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a spectacular performance of Hector Berlioz’s 1846 masterpiece.
Berlioz’s Faust is famously uncategorisable – it’s one part cantata, one part opera and all parts ‘dramatic legend’, a term invented by its creator. Wide-ranging and extremely adventurous in subject matter, the piece is rarely acted out but under the baton of John Nelson the musicians transport us to Faust’s universe as well as any actors would.
Faust – the ultimate everyman – meets his demise at the end of the piece in Berlioz’s swirling orchestral textures and percussive cacophony after falling prey to the charming wiles of Adam Lau’s Mephistopheles who promises him love and life. However, we first meet our protagonist in good spirits, soliloquising upon the wonders of nature. This is the calm before the apocalyptic tornado, as it were, and Peter Hoare’s tenor is appropriately pure in timbre. The Hungarian march, always a favourite, is enthusiastic with flourishes a-plenty, its Eastern harmonies hinting ever so slightly at the darkness that is to come.
Faust’s contemplation of suicide whilst alone in his study is sudden, yet his subsequent about-turn even more so; at the sound of a choir singing an Easter hymn his faith is ‘renewed’ and he is upbeat and pious once more. This becomes a motif of the piece, Berlioz repeatedly turning his plot and its music on a sixpence to construct emotional shades of every colour, only to subvert them in the next scene. This is not for lack of humour, no better demonstrated than in Brander’s drunken ode to ‘A Certain Rat’, a self-conscious comic relief; Brander joyously calls for a fugue at the close of his song (‘Pour l’Amen, une fugue!’) and the equally wobbly choir joins him wholeheartedly.
Faust and his beloved display a naivety in the way that they follow the duplicitous Mephistopheles’ every command. The iridescent blue of Marguerite’s ballgown signifies the complexities of her innocence far better than the brash, one-dimensional scarlet worn by other incarnations of the character.
Despite being a decidedly non-theatrical performance, the trumpeters stand behind a stage door for ‘Au son des trompettes’ in Act Four, and the choir cleverly project their singing to imply distance, momentarily taking us away from the static classical concert tradition. On the other hand, the pizzicato harp and scratchy tremolo from flutes and violins are all that is required to conjure up the airborne sprites fluttering towards the slumped form of Faust to lull him to sleep during ‘Faust’s Dream’.
The emotional and situational plains the orchestra traverses are dramatically varied – the darkness of ‘Pandemonium’ is a far cry from Marguerite’s beauteous romantic ballad for ‘The King of Thule’. Berlioz’s music (though devoid of visual aids) completely transports us to the depths of hell, and we tumble downwards alongside Faust and Mephistopheles into a terrifying abyss. Occasional physicalizations or gestures do not go amiss however, from the timpani thundering through one’s chest, to Mephistopheles’ manic grin upon victory over Faust. They only add to the fantastic atmosphere Berlioz creates.
We are jolted from Faust’s despair by the finale- a saccharine, soaring chorus sung from heaven, where the silvery timbres of the harp and flute pointedly ignore our protagonist’s dismal fate.