Audiences are in for a thrilling ride when Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust comes to Lyric. It will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard here.
The source is familiar: Goethe’s Faust, a 200-year-old tale of a scholar’s deal with the devil. Goethe wrote it as a “closet drama” — meant only to be read, not acted out onstage.
Of all the composers inspired by Goethe, “no one produced a work nearly so prodigious as this, nor captured so much of the sweep and grandeur of the literary model, nor evoked so vividly spirits supernatural above and beneath us” as Berlioz, according to the late author John N. Burk.
Hector Berlioz (1803-69) considered Shakespeare and Goethe his “mute confidants.” He composed “Eight Scenes from Faust” in his 20s; two decades later he crafted The Damnation of Faust, a 20-scene, 150-minute work for orchestra, massive chorus, and soloists. “The subject, traversing heaven, earth, and hell, fired his imagination and exploited his love of sudden and complete contrasts,” wrote Burk. “He makes his chorus a panoramic background to the soloists while the scene constantly changes at the devil’s command. Thus the drama is enacted almost entirely before crowds…who give us every variety of choral effect….Berlioz, with a sure musician’s instinct, chose only what suited his purpose and freely altered the sequence of events to produce a tight and swift moving narrative with dialogue to draw the whole together.”
The “dramatic legend” has been performed mostly in concert since its 1846 premiere. It was first staged in Monte Carlo in 1893; the Metropolitan Opera mounted the U. S. stage premiere in 1906, and didn’t present it onstage again until 2008.
Which brings us to Lyric’s upcoming date with the devilishly challenging work in a new production. Three longtime collaborators — stage director Stephen Langridge, designer George Souglides (whose designs for John Adams’s A Flowering Tree at Chicago Opera Theater were a hit last spring), and lighting designer Wolfgang Göbbel — will make Lyric debuts, joined by projections designer John Boesche (creator of the sensational projections for Lyric’s Lulu) and choreographer Philippe Giraudeau (whose work in Lyric’s Dialogues of the Carmelites was so movingly memorable).
Langridge notes that rather than write a conventional opera, Berlioz created a dramatic and musical form that suited his unique creative vision: “Berlioz conceived it for a theater that didn’t exist – he was ahead of his time.” The time-and-space-traveling tale flits from Hungary to Germany, from tavern to grove, from bedroom to hellish bedlam and finally to heaven. It features the self-absorbed Faust, the oh-so-accommodating Méphistophélès, the lovesick innocent Marguerite, plus peasants, students, soldiers, churchgoers, gnomes, sprites, sylphs, will-o-the-wisps, the damned, and the sanctified.
“It’s almost like the Ring cycle compressed,” says Souglides. “You traverse several worlds, as in the Ring — you’re just not spending five hours in each realm.” (Wagner commenced work on the Ring just two years after Damnation premiered.)
As in the Ring, Damnation’s libretto paints vivid word pictures of unseen events and phenomena. “We won’t be illustrating the music in a sort of Fantasia way,” says Langridge. “We’ll tell the story as clearly as we can and involve the audience in Faust’s journey.” He and his colleagues see Faust “as an obsessive mathematician or physicist, looking for the basis of nature through math rather than a telescope.”
The English director notes that Berlioz’s libretto “plays fast and loose with the narrative. Faust is an established, mature person but not old, so he’s not going to be ‘rejuvenated,’” as in Goethe and Gounod. “It’s more ‘new-girlfriend-and-fast-car time’ for Faust!” Langridge says with a laugh about the protagonist’s timeless midlife crisis. He adds that Berlioz profoundly alters the legend’s moral equation by having Faust journey with Méphistophélès but not sign away his soul until the end — to save Marguerite from damnation.
Souglides, a Greek designer now based in France, envisions Faust “in a white room, which then opens up as he starts talking about nature. For him nature is in his calculations, not looking outside his windows and seeing trees and flowers and birds. That’s how the
projections start, with the mathematical world made visible. Gradually the set will open up to reveal the world of the chorus — the happy outside world.”
High-tech wizardry that Berlioz might have sold his soul for will help bring his dramatic legend to life onstage at Lyric. “We decided to use projections because of their fluidity, and also because we’ve got the right artist,” says Langridge of Chicago-based John Boesche (whose designs have also been seen in Lyric’s Tannhäuser and Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe stagings). At the production team’s first meeting, Boesche recalls, “I pulled out my own Mephistophelean bag of tricks — a portable hard drive — with images and textures that I projected digitally directly onto George’s set model. The power to add a whole new layer of physical staging and imagery by using projections is irresistible, given the subject matter.” The design will be “very rich, complex, and beautiful, within a very modern vocabulary of images — for instance words, numbers, and symbols swirling, falling, coming in and out of focus — a kind of modern computational alchemy. Most of the images will be solidly computer-generated animation.”
The idea of Faust as an obsessed researcher will resonate with anyone who spends endless hours at a computer, Boesche notes. “There were tech nerds back then — they just didn’t have computers, only piles of books. A big part of the story is Faust’s despair while completely isolated in his work. When he moves out into the greater world, he is unprepared for the temptations and
moral choices he must make. Faust isn’t a distant, tragic figure, but someone we clearly recognize and even identify with.”
The production team is captivated by Damnation’s thrilling score, as well. “The excitement of the music made me fall in love with it — the colors, the strength of it,” Souglides says. “What we want to create onstage is the force of the music — the momentum of the music. It takes you by the throat and throws you into this world. It’s extraordinary.”
Clearly, audiences can expect a wild and wondrous ride when this dramatic legend comes to life on Lyric’s stage in February.
For the first time in one season, Lyric audiences can experience a "demonic duo" — two operatic versions of Goethe’s epic drama Faust.
Charles Gounod’s Faust returns in October, a vibrant production by Frank Corsaro and Robert Perdziola first seen at Lyric in 2003-04. In February comes Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, a new production and Lyric’s first venture into his colorful operatic universe. Sir Andrew Davis conducts both works.
The French composers were inspired by Goethe’s cautionary tale of Faust, a discontented scholar on the verge of suicide who is seduced by Méphistophélès’s promises of restored youth and romantic conquest. The resulting works were written in roughly the same era and premiered in Paris — Berlioz’s in 1846 and Gounod’s in 1859. But in matters of music, text, staging, and the main characters’ psychological makeup, they could hardly be more different.
Faust is the epitome of 19th-century French opera — lavishly scaled, bursting with beguiling melodies, many of them among opera’s greatest hits. Generations of sopranos and audiences have adored the “Jewel Song,” its liquid trills and darting phrases expressing Marguerite’s naïve delight at the bijoux the crafty Méphistophélès has left as a gift from Faust. Act Four includes the famous, resolutely hopeful “Soldiers’ Chorus” and Méphistophélès’s equally well-known “Serenade,” a cynical portrait of young love harshly punctuated by the devil’s own taunting laughter.
This is opera at its grandest — the work that inaugurated the Metropolitan Opera House in 1883 and a staple of opera companies internationally during the late 19 th century and well into the 20 th .
When Berlioz composed The Damnation of Faust in the mid-1840s, his vision was far different from that of the French opera of his day. Subtitling his piece a “dramatic legend,” Berlioz compressed and rearranged Goethe’s sprawling story into four parts with a running time of well under three hours.
There are gorgeously luxuriant arias and duets, spiced with sparkling orchestral touches that bring the opera’s characters and locales to vivid life. Among them are two popular baritone showcases, Méphistophélès’s jaunty serenade, “Devant la maison,” and his soothing lullaby, “Voici des roses.” Three instrumental interludes — the bouncy “Rákóczy March,” the stately “Minuet of the Will o’ the Wisps,” and the dreamy “Dance of the Sylphs” — are staples of the orchestral repertoire. The chorus is a powerful force throughout The Damnation of Faust, often propelling the action. Exploding with high-spirited syncopations, the cheerful song of the “Peasants’ Dance” heightens Faust’s existential despair, though later on, the solemn joy of a choral “Easter Hymn” banishes his thoughts of suicide.
The Damnation of Faust unfolds with quick scene changes and shifts of time and place that are positively cinematic. The 18 th scene with Faust and Méphistophélès on racing horses literally bent for hell is something that not even the most technologically advanced 19th-century Parisian opera house could have hoped to dramatize onstage. Berlioz conceived Damnation as a concert opera, conducting its first performances himself. The most celebrated orchestras, soloists, and choruses throughout the world have performed it consistently with great success, but only in recent years, with production technologies such as video projections now available, has the work found success in the opera house.
And not a moment too soon for Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director. “The British have always had an affinity for the music of Berlioz. They welcomed him and his music during his lifetime in a way his compatriots never did.”
The Damnation of Faust was a case in point. Little more than a year after conducting the premiere performances before disastrously empty houses in Paris in December 1846, Berlioz made his London debut leading a concert that included the work in early 1848. Julius Benedict, then one of England’s top composers and conductors, called it the season’s most important concert.
“Berlioz was such an incredible innovator,” said Sir Andrew. “When you think that the Symphonie fantastique was written three years after Beethoven died, it makes you realize what [Berlioz achieved] and how shocking it must have been when this music first appeared. There were no rules, no expectations. What he did with the orchestra was quite remarkable.”
Even with 21st-century technology, Sir Andrew admits that bringing Damnation to the opera stage is a challenge. “Berlioz thought of it as an opera of the mind. Several scenes evoke different locales, including heaven and hell, and they change very quickly, so it’s a technical challenge for a director and a designer. It also has to have a sense of the fantastical, but at the same time it has to tell the story, such as it is.”
Faust, though structured with time-honored operatic conventions in mind, poses its own challenges. “Clearly Gounod’s is a much more conventional opera,” said Sir Andrew. “But I’m looking forward to it because it’s a real masterpiece. Faust is one of those operas some take for granted. It wears its heart on its sleeve, but it’s very important that the piece not be sentimentalized. You need to find the core emotions and be sure that they’re not debased.”
Lyric’s “Faustian feast” this season will feature three outstanding devilish dynamos: German baritone René Pape and American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen in the fall, and Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea in the winter.
Relyea, debuting at Lyric as Méphistophélès in Damnation, has performed both the Gounod and Berlioz works. He appeared with his Lyric costar, Susan Graham, in a well-received production of the Berlioz at the Metropolitan Opera last fall. “I’m pleased that my Lyric debut is going to be [this Méphistophélès],” said Relyea. “It’s grown to be one of my favorite roles. The Berlioz is more through-composed — it doesn’t feel like arias and ensembles strung together as in most standard opera.”
But the characters in Berlioz’s version are as fully drawn as any in the opera repertoire. “[Méphistophélès in] the Gounod Faust is a little more of a character role in a way,” said Relyea. “There’s a little more humor. In Berlioz, there is definitely the irony and some of the sarcasm, but it’s not quite so out front. You have a sense of Berlioz’s Mephisto being a little more of a gentleman and a guiding hand. I think there’s a little more depth to him.
“When he’s being tender and seductive, he’s really doing it in a very convincing way. In ‘Voici des roses,’ there’s nothing artificial about it at all — he wants to create something of beauty. He’s very much at the helm all the time, steering things along. When you look at the Mephisto in the Gounod, it’s almost a parrying situation. In Berlioz, it’s really Méphistophélès controlling the entire illusion.”
Pape, who portrays Méphistophélès in Lyric’s revival of Faust, has sung the role at the Met in 2005 and in Orange, France, in 2008. (Ketelsen sings the final three performances.) The New York Times called Pape’s portrayal “robust, incisive and chilling….These are [his] first performances as Méphistophélès, and he already owns the role.”
Opera News praised his “mesmerizing performance as a Méphistophélès of awesome malevolence…his sinister, accented French only adding to the power of his interpretation. He was also delightfully funny in his dealings with the amorous advances of…Dame Marthe.”
Lyric audiences have been captivated by Pape’s blend of richly expressive voice and powerful stage presence, most recently as Rocco in Fidelio in 2004-05. He seizes the stage the moment he appears and holds our attention even when he is not front and center. Few who heard his King Marke for Lyric (1999-00’s Tristan und Isolde ) will forget the experience. Standing quietly, full of kingly dignity, for close to 15 minutes he held us spellbound with his outpouring of anger and disappointment at Tristan’s betrayal.
Pape’s repertoire is wide-ranging, as the title of his 2008 debut solo CD — “Gods, Kings and Demons” — makes clear. It includes arias from both Faust and Damnation, though he has never performed the full Berlioz work.
“I’ve enjoyed doing kings, even gods. I enjoy every role I do,” said Pape. But Méphistophélès is a special case, both simple and complex. “Not so much is challenging in this role,” he admitted. “The devil stays the devil. But it depends on the production. The devil is a fantastic role because you can show so many colors of the character. He can be seductive, mean, funny, deranged. I actually like to do that.”
No doubt about it — the devil will get at least double his due this season at Lyric!