The Damnation of Faust (Met’s HD Broadcast)

I went to see/hear Met’s HD Broadcast yesterday – Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (or as everyone pretentiously overpronounced it, La Damnation de Faust) – and I have to say that I thought it was a great production. The problem, you see, is that Damnation of Faust is not really an opera. It does have three main characters and a large chorus, but it does not have a coherent narrative, or at least it does not allow one to smoothly transition from one scene to another. It is a series of episodes, songs, or tableaux, if you will, from Goethe’s Faust. It is most often performed as a concert, not as a staged opera – there isn’t much to stage, I suppose. Here is for example a review of a concert version from 2005:


The score is a grand, shimmering thing, a marvel of orchestration that not only dramatizes Faust’s tumultuous inner world but also narrates his outer journey with remarkable clarity: from his estranged early wanderings in nature to his final nightmarish ride on the Devil’s magic horses, encountering rainstorms of blood on his way and flocks of huge night birds that beat him with their wings.

The sheer inventiveness of the writing is beyond question, but whether Berlioz’s work comes across as spellbinding or as an extended exercise in orchestral special effects depends largely on the soloists.

In other words, one must be quite imaginative in order to fill many musical and narrative gaps in the performance with some sort of action. Robert Lepage, who directed this performance, used all sorts of technological tricks such as projections, dancers and acrobatic Jesuses (plural yes) in order to make sure the audience was kept busy. Some would find this annoying as the element of enjoyment of music is somewhat lacking, some would find it interesting, I think as it keeps one within the story. Here’s one review (of many) of the performance: 


Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust

Marguerite (Susan Graham); Faust (Marcello Giordani); Mephistopheles (John Relyea); Brander (Patrick Carfizzi).The Metropolitan Opera. Conducted by James Levine.

There are excellent reasons for this reluctance. Berlioz’s magical setting of scenes from Part I of Goethe’s Faust (in de Nerval’s translation, also the basis for Gounod’s opera) focuses hardly at all on the scenes of action that might be cobbled into a stage drama, but almost entirely on the poetic “background” of peasants dancing, students drinking, soldiers marching, fairies flying, devils cavorting, lords a-leaping, maids a-milking. This scene-setting and the fascinating and novel effects Berlioz drew from orchestra and chorus to depict it make up most of the evening, and traditional opera houses, even those equipped with elaborate stage machinery and full corps de ballet, seldom find it worth the effort. Read the rest here.

The Met has not staged La Damnation de Faust in a hundred years, since 1906, when it clocked a mere five performances.

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