Tuesday 2 February 2016

Berlioz - La Damnation de Faust (Paris, 2015 - Webcast)

Hector Berlioz - La Damnation de Faust

L’Opéra de Paris, 2015

Philippe Jordan, Alvis Hermanis, Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, Bryn Terfel, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Sophie Claisse

Culturebox - 17 December 2015

Alvis Hermanis' production of La Damnation de Faust wasn't well received when in opened in Paris in December, the director and his team reportedly booed loudly by the audience on the first night. Even by the conservative standards of some sections of the Paris audience they must be an overly sensitive lot, as it's hard to see what anyone could find offensive about the Latvian director's elaboration of the themes in Berlioz's opera. Admittedly the science-fiction setting of a mission to Mars is not the clearest or most obvious way to explore Faust's dilemma over the nature of humanity, but it's hardly provocative Regietheater either.

As difficult as it is to define as a musical entity, Berlioz's 'dramatic legend' opera/cantata is a richly orchestrated work, exhibiting all the well-documented enthusiasm that the composer had for Goethe's work. La Damnation de Faust doesn't have a lot of dramatic action to it and is more of a compilation of selected scenes, which to judge by Boito's Mefistofele and even Gounod's Faust is the only way to adapt it to opera. Berlioz's version however is ideal for a director to apply a response to the work that is equally as rich as the musical ideas, and it doesn't have to be anything extreme either. It's about exploring the human capacity for evil and for love, and the eternal struggle for the better side of that nature to rise above the lesser.

If it's not exactly ideal for the stage, that is also the reason why the work usually attracts the more imaginative approach of likes of Terry Gilliam and La Fura dels Baus. Alvis Hermanis' approach for the Paris Opera isn't quite as extravagant in scale. There's something of Hans Neuenfels' controversial Lohengrin for Bayreuth in how it examines the themes of the work as a scientific experiment rather than from a religious/moral perspective. Hermanis takes the questions raised in La Damnation de Faust and applies them to the Mars One mission to create a human settlement on the red planet in 2025. It's an idea that works both ways, using Faust to examine real questions raised about the failings and contradictions that it reveals within the human make-up, but it also gives what is essentially a 'religious fantasy' set in the 15th century a basis in the real world of today.

That's all well and good in theory. In practice and on the stage, it doesn't work quite as well as the director might have liked. It's rather heavily signalled at the start by the question: "Who is the Faust of our time?" and suggests that it's none other than Dr Stephen Hawking. Although sung and performed freely by Jonas Kaufmann, another actor/double plays Hawking sitting in his wheelchair and speaking through that famous voice generator. The imagery is specific to the future Mars mission, but it's also broad-stroke in terms of how it contrasts science and nature. Dancers are used extensively, with men in white coats conducting experiments on the 'white mice' volunteers in glass cages wearing only their underwear, while projections show nature, egg fertilisation and grand scenes large and small from nature.

It's all very tenuous and not particularly illuminating, but as a way of illustrating the themes of Faust, it's fine. The production looks good, the stage is always active without being overactive, and the essence of what is being sung about is conveyed with some originality that avoids all the usual cliches. It holds together consistently and stands up in a way that the work itself, being made up of selected scenes that drop many of the familiar dramatic points, would not do so well on its own. There's certainly nothing here that distorts the meaning or the essence of the work, or detracts from the very specific musical interpretation that Berlioz applies to it all. It's anything but the fiasco that the Paris audience and press would have you believe.

The fact that there is a great cast and good performances that make this a memorable musical performance, also makes the extreme reaction of the audience even more baffling. Jonas Kaufmann is not given a lot to work with dramatically either by the nature of the work as Faust or the direction as Stephen Hawking, but his singing is just wonderful. Sophie Koch starts off a little wobbly and imprecise as Marguerite, but settles into the role well and gives her usual committed performance. Bryn Terfel can sing the role well, but the vague characterisation of Mephistopheles in this reading of the work and the casual dress make it feel a little perfunctory. Philippe Jordan ensures however that the orchestra provides all the dynamic and excitement that might be lacking elsewhere. How anyone could come away from the Bastille disappointed by this production is something of a mystery. 

Links: Culturebox, L’Opéra National de Paris