Stage Door Review

Glyndebourne, GBR: La Damnation de Faust

Saturday, May 25, 2019

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by Hector Berlioz, directed by Richard Jones

Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Glyndebourne Opera House, Glyndebourne, GBR

May 18-July 10, 2019

Quelques Voix: “Un mystère d’horreur s’accomplit”

Musically, the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s first ever production of Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust is wonderfully strong and vigorous. Conductor Robin Ticciati has communicated his love for Berlioz to the London Philharmonic Orchestra and their revelling in Berlioz’s melodies, harmonies and rhythms communicates this to us. Were Damnation presented simply as an oratorio as it often is, we would be overwhelmed by its power and beauty. 

It is, however, presented as Berlioz intended as an opera, and director Richard Jones seems to have gone out of his way to provide as perverse a dramatic interpretation of the work as possible. When Damnation failed on the Parisian stage in 1846, Berlioz assumed that the theatre of his own day was simply not equipped to present such a technically complex drama. Today, with enough imagination, we can present even more complex works on the stage such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The flaw at Glyndebourne is the old problem with Regietheater where the director has imposed a vision of the work completely at odds with its words and music. 

Berlioz wrote Damnation based Gérard de Nerval’s 1828 translation of Part 1 of Goethe’s Faust. Goethe did not publish the final edition of Part 2 of Faust until 1832 so Berlioz had no idea how Goethe planned to end his epic drama. In Goethe’s Part 1, Gretchen (Marguerite in Berlioz), whom Faust has seduced and abandoned leaving her pregnant, accidentally kills her mother with the sleeping potion Faust had given the mother so he and Gretchen could have privacy for their dalliances. When the distraught Gretchen then kills her newborn child, she is arrested and imprisoned. With Mephistopheles’ help, Faust tries to persuade Gretchen to escape, but she does not want to and eventually dies. Contradicting Mephistopheles’ statement, “Sie ist gerichtet!” (“She is condemned!”), Heavenly voices proclaim “Ist gerettet!” (“Is saved!”). Not knowing Goethe’s plans for Faust in Part 2, Berlioz assumed he would be damned. In fact, Goethe shows that Faust is also saved because, as angels proclaim, “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen” (“Whoever continues to strive is the one that we can save”).

Richard Jones’s production follows Berlioz’s assumption about Faust by depicting his damnation as per the opera’s title, but it goes contrary to Berlioz’s intention in nearly every other particular. The action is played out in a space space surrounded on three sides by Hyemi Shin’s black wooden walls surmounted two tiers of seats as if it were an old-fashioned operating theatre or tribunal. Here Jones places the chorus all dressed Nicky Gillibrand’s homemade-looking Halloween-style devil costumes. Jones has Méphistophélès (Christopher Purves) begin both Acts 1 and 2 with spoken texts from Goethe’s Faust translated into French by Agathe Mélinand. In both speeches, not in Berlioz, Méphisto directly addresses the audience and says he will demonstrate how easy it is to win a human soul. 

Both speeches are taken out of context because Goethe is fully aware of traditional Christian theology which conceives that Lucifer or any of his minions like Mephistopheles, may believe they have power but are mistaken. Lucifer and all the other angels who rebelled against God, are God’s creations and have no power other than what God gives them. Goethe’s demonstration that Gretchen is saved because she loved and Faust because he strived are meant as rebukes to Mephistopheles and to the notion that heaven punishes human frailty in the narrow way that demons or human beings suppose.

Jones, however, ignores all this and turns Berlioz’s great work into an illustration that human and demonic narrow-mindedness does reflect the way the world works. Jones thus trivializes both Faust and Marguerite and the point of the story making one wonder why Berlioz would compose music of such power to tell such a petty tale. 

In Jones’s production Faust is not an exceptional human being who has reached the boundaries of human knowledge only to realize he has grown old studying and neglected living. Instead, Jones’s Faust is a lumpish schlemiel. Jones creates a pantomime during the famous “Marche Hongroise” of Act 1 to show Faust being ridiculed at the military academy where he teaches and being dismissed after being caught with pornography planted on his person by the students.

As in Berlioz, Faust contemplates attempting suicide, but stops when he hears the music of a distant Easter celebration in church. The music, however, is sung by the chorus of devils which suggests with little subtlety that Christianity and the resurrection being celebrated by Berlioz’s music are only myths. 

The main problem with diminishing Faust’s intellect is that it also diminishes Méphistophélès’s cheating him of his soul. What kind of prize it the soul of a bumbling man so easily fooled by his own students? The main problem with denying Christianity any role in the drama is that it gives Méphistophélès no opponent to his actions. What point is there then to Jones’s added spoken text about showing us how Méphistophélès captures a human soul when the powers of evils are apparently the only ones in charge of the world?

Given Jones’s wilfulness, it is unsurprising but depressing to find that he has cut the “Menuet des follets” from its place in Act 3 and substitutes the “Ballet des sylphes” from Act 2. This ballet is meant to be the climax of Méphistophélès’s enchanting Faust with an image of Marguerite. Instead, Jones has dancers clad as an array of evil spirits from different cultures manipulate a sleeping Faust and Marguerite into various sexual positions. As he did with Faust’s intellect and God’s power, Jones trivializes Faust and Marguerite’s love as merely lust. The additional difficulty here is that since Jones shows the two lovers asleep, is that it is unclear until far too late that what we see is meant to be actual rather than imagined.

In Act 4 while Marguerite sings her gorgeous aria “D’amour l’ardente flamme”. Jones undercuts its beauty by directing Marguerite simultaneously to overdose her mother with a sleeping potion. Rather than having the chorus of students “derrière la scène” as in the libretto, Jones has them be the ones who discover that Marguerite has killed her mother and drag her off to prison.

After so many violations of Berlioz’s intent and of Goethe’s, we should not be surprised, although we still are, that Jones does not depict “Apothéose de Marguerite” as it is entitled in Berlioz’s libretto which corresponds to Gretchen’s pardoning by heaven in Goethe’s original. Since there is nothing in the libretto to support Jones’s antagonistic view, Jones has to give Méphistophélès a spoken line saying that Faust dreams of Marguerite’s salvation to justify his perverse ending. 

As in the Easter Sunday service earlier, Jones has the devils in their tribunal sing as the “Choeur d’ésprits célestes”, thus suggesting that there are no such beings, while Faust in tears in hell faces the audience. The audience justifiably concludes that this is the end of the performance and they duly applaud only to silenced by Christopher Purves as Méphistophélès. It turns out that Jones has decided that the final number should be the “Menuet des follets” from Act 3 meant to represent the will-o’-the-wisps’ enchanting of Marguerite so that she falls in love with Faust. Here Jones substitutes the ill-clad devils of the earlier “Ballet des sylphes” for the will-o’-the-wisps. As Movement Director, Sarah Fahie is signally unable to create anything by miscellaneous acrobatics and generic frugging to sustain interest through the lovely six minutes of this piece. As with the other ballet sequences in Damnation, Jones uses the piece as a kind of epilogue to the action and we find that the baby that Marguerite gave birth to in prison, which was taken away by hysterical nuns, is now, for unknown reasons, handed over to Méphistophélès himself.

I firmly believe that if an opera is presented to an audience that is likely never to have seen it before the director has a responsibility to present it in a manner that at least somewhat resembles how the librettist and the composer had originally interpreted the material they chose. It is thus a terrible pity that La Damnation de Faust in its first ever staging at Glyndebourne should appear in a production that so completely misrepresents the opera. 

Berlioz does introduce his own interpretation to Goethe’s work in having Faust sign the pact with Méphistophélès so late in the action and not in order to regain his lost youth. Rather, Berlioz’s Faust signs over his soul in an heroic effort to save Marguerite from prison. It is important, therefore, that for Faust’s self-sacrifice to have any meaning that Marguerite be saved at the end. Méphistophélès may think he has power, but the power of human love, as in Goethe, proves to be even stronger. If, as in Jones’s view, the forces of evil work unopposed, then there is no point to Méphistophélès’s demonstration to us or to the assembled tribunal of devils how clever he is. He is not clever. The world is already ruled by evil.

Given the total failure of Jones’s interpretation to lend drama or meaning to Berlioz’s work, that task falls to the orchestra and the singers. As Faust, Briton Allan Clayton has a strong, high, infinitely expressive tenor that gives weight to every word he sings. His “Invocation à la Nature” in Act 4 brings out the majesty of nature just as it should. Strangely, however, Clayton’s facial expression is often impassive and his body language incommunicative. Perhaps this is part of Jones’s characterization of Faust as nobody, or perhaps Clayton prefers to act only with his voice. Yet, his silent portrait of Faust’s devastation at the end shows that he can act when he chooses to do so.

In almost every way the opera belongs to fellow Briton Christopher Purves’s Méphistophélès. His huge, resonant bass-baritone brings out the sarcasm of the demon’s lines and the pungent humour of the ballad “Une puce gentille”. Although his character should have no words to speak, Purves speaks the French text with the same clarity with which he sings it so that anyone who knows French will have no need of the English surtitles. 

Québecoise Julie Boulianne uses her full, rounded mezzo-soprano to sing with great emotion and and nuance. She makes Marguerite’s main arias “Le Roi de Thulé” and “D’amour l’ardente flamme” the twin highlights of the opera. She is also a fine actor and with Purves looks completely at home on stage.

British baritone Ashley Riches is not as subtle an actor as Purves or Boulianne, yet he has a large baritone and well distinguishes the various characters he plays, whether Brander the bully in Auerbach’s Tavern or the demonic priest who steals Marguerite’s newborn infant. 

Under conductor Robin Ticciati the London Philharmonic Orchestra plays with verve and precision, with special kudos due the wind section for their unity and ability to capture Berlioz’s distinctive melancholy sound. The Glyndebourne Chorus is particular effective and effortlessly altered its tone to represent the many kinds of characters – whether peasants, students, angels or demons – that it represented. 

More than any other component, the drama generated by Ticciati and the LPO convinced one that Berlioz’s “Légende dramatique” as he called it belongs in the opera house. If only the Glyndebourne production had a director brave enough to support, rather than contradict, what Berlioz’s text and music so clearly state, the Festival’s first Damnation de Faust could have been an great success.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Christopher Purves as Méphistophélès and Allan Clayton as Faust; the chorus of devils; the “Ballet des sylphes” with Julie Boulianne as Marguerite and Allan Clayton as Faust; Julie Boulianne as Marguerite; Christopher Purves as Méphistophélès. © 2019 Richard Hubert Smith. 

For tickets, visit www.glyndebourne.com.