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Berlioz's La damnation de Faust

09.07.2019


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After seeing Gounod’s Faust in Nice and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Aldeburgh, Tony Cooper once more catches up with the devil but this time round on the South Downs of East Sussex with Glyndebourne’s production of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust directed by Richard Jones. This is the first time that the opera has been staged at Glyndebourne marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. 


The performing company is one of the largest seen at Glyndebourne. Sixty-four singers make up the Glyndebourne Chorus complemented by Glyndebourne Youth Opera, Trinity Boys’ Choir and 14 actors plus the four principal singers comprising Allan Clayton (Faust), Christopher Purves (Méphistophélès), Julie Boulianne (Marguerite) and Ashley Riches (Brander). The production also featured 85 instrumentalists (80 in the pit, five off-stage) while Gareth Hancock (standing in for Robin Ticciati) conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by Pieter Schoeman.


Berlioz was inspired to write La damnation de Faust after reading part one of Goethe’s Faust in 1828 in a translation by Gérard de Nerval. He commented that ‘this marvellous book fascinated me from the first. I could not put it down. I read it incessantly: at meals, in the theatre, in the street.’ He was so impressed by it that a suite entitled Eight Scenes from Faust became his Opus 1 in 1829. 


Originally, a ‘concert opera’ it became with expansion a ‘légende dramatique’ (a term coined by Berlioz) in four parts. By the time it was written, the composer had found fame by the trio of works - Symphonie fantastique, Harold in Italy and Romeo and Juliet.



Often referred to as one of the two quintessential myths of western culture - the other being Don Giovanni - the story of Faust became an obsession for many of the greatest composers of the 19th century. Countless works were inspired by the myth including Liszt’s A Faust Symphony, Part II of Mahler’s Symphony No.8, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust and, of course, Charles Gounod’s opera, Faust.


Berlioz always wanted the work to be staged and, in this respect, the première fell to the Opéra-Comique, Paris, in December 1846. The performance, though, became a damp squib due to its status, perhaps, of being part-opera, part-cantata. Causing a financial setback for Berlioz, he recalled: ‘Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference.’ He conceded that the production techniques afforded him were not really up to the task of bringing the work fully to dramatic life. How he would have loved today’s hi-tech production facilities.

However, in this respect, Richard Jones’ production - clinical and clean - was not excessively hi-tech at all and his direction was plain, simple and unfussy focusing the opera’s action mainly on Méphistophélès, the role so handsomely sung by Christopher Purves who came over as a suave-looking gentleman sporting a rush of long red hair matched by a flowing black cape with his fiddle never far from hand. (Incidentally, the link between the devil and the fiddle comes about by the skill of the 19th-century Italian violinist, Niccolò Paganini, who was so extraordinary that rumour has it that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his gift. He actually performed in my home city of Norwich.)

However, Mr Purves’ clear-cut baritone voice cut through Berlioz’ illuminating score like a knife through butter while his stage presence and acting ability proved an equal match. The role - which he played for the first time in Terry Gilliam’s more elaborately-directed production for English National Opera in 2011 in which he received the South Bank Sky Arts opera award - surely belongs to him.

And his target of interest, Faust, fell to tenor Allan Clayton (making his role début in the part) looking tidy and bright in a tight-fitting green waistcoat but, as the opera progresses, he sinks to oblivion under the spell of the devil over a series of short (but intense) scenes. One such scene takes place in Auerbach’s Keller in Leipzig (a haunt I know well) which owes its worldwide reputation to Goethe’s play as it is the first stopping-place that Méphistophélès takes Faust on his long journey to destruction and despair.

The scene of the Roses Club - a brothel with narcotic flowers as its theme - proved just as impressive with the ‘girls’ carrying numbers to identify themselves as if taking part in a beauty contest but, on closer scrutiny, they looked sad and forlorn as befits the industry they find themselves caught up in. It’s here where Méphistophélès nails Faust while capturing his soul with the vision of Marguerite, the role so well sung and acted by the French-Canadian mezzo-soprano, Julie Boulianne, making her Glyndebourne début. And what a début!

Her tender rendering of the ballad about the king of Thule (Autrefois, un roi de Thulé) who remained faithful to his lost love, was poignantly and delicately sung whilst in the same scene Allan Clayton delivered a superb rendering of ‘Merci, doux crepuscule’ - one of the star numbers for tenors in the whole of the operatic repertoire - in which Faust finds himself in Marguerite’s room revelling at the joy of being so close to her.

Another telling number, the Song of the Rat (Chanson de Brander) lit up the stage sung with gusto by bass-baritone, Ashley Riches, in the role of Brander, the landlord. Paying tribute to a dead kitchen rat the song (which has earned the distinction of a place among the top 10 operatic drinking songs) ends with the sublimely-twisted closing chorus of ‘Amen’ gloriously sung by the Glyndebourne Chorus well-drilled by their chorus-master, Aidan Oliver. When Méphistolphélès continues the fun in the bawdy and drunken environment revelling in the Song of the Flea, a bewildered-looking Faust, angry and impatient, leaves the party in a huff.

As Berlioz’ work was destined for the concert-hall rather than the stage the orchestra gets a good share of the action and the popular Hungarian March (Rákóczi March) - an 18th-century melody and the unofficial state anthem of Hungary which received a thunderous reception when heard in Pest in February 1846 - radiated round Glyndebourne’s cosy auditorium to audience delight and in company with such other great orchestral delights as the Dance of the Sylphs (Ballet des sylphs) and the hair-raising Ride to the Abyss (La Course à l’abîme) - a wild, reckless galloping ride towards eternal damnation - Gareth Hancock shone in the pit with the LPO unlocking the instrumental wizardry of Berlioz’ ravishing score in grand 19th-century style.

Korean-born set designer, Ms Hyemi Shin, came up with a simple wooden-box set in situ for the whole of the opera. Clean and unfussy, suggesting a claustrophobic prison-like environment, members of the chorus - suitably adorned with devil’s horns to ward off, I guess, the ‘evil eye’ - were positioned on a couple of high-level galleries commenting or acting as a kind of jury to the ensuing drama unfolding beneath them. 

The ending of this sad tale, however, comes with Faust seducing Marguerite then abandoning her but, hopelessly, she awaits his return manifested in the delightful aria ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’ while Faust calls upon nature to cure him of his world-weariness with Allan Clayton delivering a fine rendering of an equally-delightful aria, ‘Nature immense, impénétrable et fière’. 

When Méphistophélès explains to Faust that Marguerite is in prison for accidentally prescribing her interfering and dominant mother an overdose of her sleeping draught thereby killing her, the cunning old devil claims that he can save her from the gallows but only if Faust relinquishes his soul to him. Unable to think straight, he agrees and the two ride off on a pair of black stallions. Thinking they’re on their way to Marguerite, Faust becomes terrified when he sees demonic apparitions. The landscape becomes more and more horrible and grotesque and Faust realises that Méphistophélès has tricked him.

Conjuring up a high-dramatic ending, Mr Jones came up with a novel piece of staging. An oversized model of a guillotine slowly descended to the stage and was then hoisted back to its lofty position in a brutally-used state. The townsfolk excitedly gathered round to witness the scene of Marguerite’s demise. In true Wagnerian style, though, she finds redemption through death and takes her place alongside the Heavenly Host whilst Faust is left tormented, quivering and confused wallowing on a bare stage trapped by the devil’s snare staring longingly into the abyss of hell. 

Overall, the staging and production was clinical, clean and effective and Mr Jones delivered a blistering surprise in the epilogue that witnessed a strong and athletic troupe of demonic-looking dancers attired in flame-painted latex body-suits dancing the Dance of Death which ended with the Devil’s Disciple making a quick appearance handing over to Méphistophélès the unbaptised child of Faust and Marguerite. A captured and innocent soul now firmly in his grasp, he laughed out loud at his wickedness. A bizarre ending!


Gareth Hancock (conductor)
Richard Jones (director)
Sarah Fahie (associate director)
Hyemi Shin (set designer)
Nicky Gillibrand (costume designer)
Andreas Fuchs (lighting designer)
Agathe Mélinand (additional texts derived from Goethe’s Faust)
London Philharmonic Orchestra (leader: Pieter Schoeman)
Allan Clayton (Faust, an ageing scholar)
Christopher Purves (Méphistophélès, the Devil disguised as a gentleman)
Julie Boulianne (Marguerite, a young woman)
Ashley Riches (Brander, a landlord)
Dancers: Lauren Bridle, Otis Cameron-Carr, Richard Court, Henry Curtis, Chris Harrison Kerr, Bridget Lappin, Caroline Lofthouse, Razak Osman, Bailey Pepper, Sebastian Rose, Callum Stirling, Sarah Ward, Jay Yule
Children: Flora Atherton, Ethan Kerr, Abigail Hotten, Alfie Malewicz, Connor Malewicz
The Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus-master, Aidan Oliver)
Glyndebourne Youth Opera
Trinity Boys’ Choir
Matthew Fletcher, Ashok Gupta, Steven Maughan (music preparation)
Florence Daguerre de Hureaux (language coach)
Laura Attridge, Oliver Platt (assistant directors)
Sarah Fahie (choreographer)
Anjali Mehra-Hughes (assistant choreographer)

Photograph, Richard Hubert Smith

 
Tony Cooper

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