Saturday, January 3, 2009


Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 4th of January 2009 at
3 - 6 pm


BERLIOZ: The Damnation of Faust,
an opera in 4 parts and two epilogues
Goethe’s classic story of Faust’s desire to regain his youth
and the consequences of his pact with Méphistophélès
who promises him knowledge and the fulfilment of all his wishes
Marguerite.................... Susan Graham
Faust............................. Marcello Giordani
Méphistophélès............. John Relyea
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/James Levine

This is the first offering in 2009 from the NY Metropera season, and it has Susan Graham, famous for her Dido in The Trojans of Berlioz (video).
The Damnation of Faust, by Hector Berlioz, after Goethe's Faust. Not an opera, really, just an opus: a "dramatic legend in four parts" (with two epilogues?), like his Romeo and Juliette (a dramatic symphony). But it has in fact been staged: Monte Carlo in 1893; Liverpool, New Orleans, New York in 1894. And it has been done in Wellington in our lifetime, 1992 (as Roger Wilson has reminded us). First performed in Paris in 1846, as a cantata or oratorio, we might say.
I have a recording on vinyl,with Janet Baker and Nicolai Gedda, Orchestre de Paris conducted by Georges Prêtre. I remember how excited I was to find it in a shop in Wellington. There is a Tanglewood version conducted by Seiji Ozawa (with Donald McIntyre as Mephistopheles).
But now let me tell you about the video of the 1999 Salzburg Festival, La Damnation de Faust, with English subtitles, not a few (phew!). Faust (Paul Groves), Marguerite (Vesselina Kasarova), Mephistopheles (Willard White, a black man, even though Meph is described as having "pale skin").
There are no "acts", only "scenes", about 20 (count 'em).
The first scene is in Hungary (so that the composer can include his version of the Rakoczy March; he does not bring Helen of Troy into it, as Goethe does, so we won't get the Trojan March recycled here). He incorporated his earlier "Eight scenes from Faust" (opus 1, 1828) into this work.
The central set-piece (so to speak) is a multi-storey cylindrical tower, which can contain the cast of thousands, encompassing Marguerite's room, and the fiery hell to which Faust will eventually be consigned, though Marguerite is received into heaven by angels.
Faust has a mobile phone and an unusual backpack (like a milk-can, perhaps a hydrogen bomb).
The story so far. Mephistopheles (a pale shadow of a black man), the emissary from Hell, has enticed Faust into a sin-binge, offering "all you ever fancied in your wildest dreams". The first port [a tipsy pun] of call was Auerbach's wine vaults, to join a jolly party. The entertainment was a requiem for a rat and a song about a flea. The academic Faust was not amused in this rough company. So the dirty devil tried again, transporting him to the banks of the Elbe River, to a bed (not the river bed, and surely not on both banks at once), on which Faust was treated to transports of delight. He heard his familiar spirit crooning his roses aria, and experienced sylphs dancing exquisitely, but invisibly, and only in virtual reality. He is given a glimpse of Marguerite. By this time Faust could have told the great deceiver to get real, and sued him for breach of contract.
But real soldiers now come on, singing their marching chorus, followed by students, revelling away in Latin. The subtitles graciously and gratuitously provide the Latin words, with no translation. Basically it is Gaudeamus igitur (let us enjoy ourselves, because life is short and pleasure is fleeting), and let's find some girls in the town, so that we can say like Caesar: Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I won). Faust and Meph sing along on a balcony on the flaming high tower. As I intimated to you, there are twenty scenes. So, moving on, we find F and M at Marguerite's bed-chamber, upstairs in the tower- apartment-block (which has now turned blue).
*Sc 9 has Faust snooping around her room looking at her things (not poking about in her drawers, though), exclaiming: "It is love, I hope".
*Sc 10, Meph slinks in and hides Faust behind a silk curtain.
*Sc 11, Marg enters with a lamp. We know that she is virtuous, and trust she is more than virtual. She is wondering whether she will ever meet the lover she has seen in her dreams. She sings a "gothic song" about a king of Thulé who was faithful to his lady unto death (first hers, then his).
*Sc 12, Meph invokes some spirits of the the inconstant flames: a song- and-dance- troupe of
will- o'- the- wisps and a band of fiddlers from Hell, who all perform a minuet and accompany him in his mocking serenade. Miraculously we also see the conductor of the opera inside the tower, larger than life.
*Sc 13, Faust comes out of hiding and smothers her with her pillow. Sorry, Otello lie. He smothers her with kisses, calls her his angel, and urges her to yield to her passion, while she surges with rapture.
*Sc 14, Meph bursts in without a curtsy and interrupts their cutesies. Faust expletes "Damnation" (and now we know why it is entitled The Damnation of Faust). The neighbours are arriving in a mass to break up the party: "A gallant is in your house and you will shortly be seeing an addition to your family". This is a rather premature prediction.
*Sc 15, Marg is alone in her room, singing of her loss of peace and her longing for for his caresses and kisses (as in Schubert's setting of Goethe's words, Gretchen at the spinning wheel). In perplexity she cries: "He does not come. Alas." She is right. They never meet again, here or in the hereafter. She is imprisoned for murdering her mother, giving her a potion to make her sleep during the "nocturnal amours"; it poisoned her.
*Sc 16, "in forests and caverns" (the tower suffices), Faust's invocation to nature, forgetful of his Margaret.
*Sc 17, Meph tells him of her fate; Faust wants to save her. Sign here, and it's done.
*Sc 18, the ride into the abyss on black steeds (we see some ghostly horses).
*Sc 19, "Pandaemonium", demons, demons, everywhere, and what a ghastly stink. Faust gets his comeuppance (make that godownance, and do not pass GO, but go straight to Hell). We hear the infernal language, as recorded by Swedenborg in his arcane visions (or 'auditions').
*Epilogue, on earth terror at Faust's downfall, in heaven choirs of seraphs, chanting Hosanna, and angels calling for Margarita to rise heavenwards (on a celestial 'Jacob' ladder).
We are given a view of the New York set in the "storyline" (click on it above); it does not have a tower, but has a basic framework of a structure with balconies (so Marguerite has a balcony scene and a bedroom to perform in).

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