La Damnation de Faust

December 8, 2015By Nick HammondMusic

Weirdly Wonderful Opera
Booed on Opening Night


La Damnation de Faust. Photo © Felipe Sanguinetti

Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, a weirdly wonderful work labeled a “dramatic legend” rather than an opera by the composer, seems better suited to the 21st century than to 1846, the year of its first performance in Paris.

Its initial failure onstage can hardly have been a surprise: the audience must have found it difficult to follow the rapid shifts between locations and different timeframes. Modern digital technology succeeds in transforming and giving clarity to the staging by Latvian director Alvis Hermanis, who has made full use of video artist Katrin Neiburga’s skills in this new production at the Opéra Bastille to present a vivid retelling of the Faust tale, one that was loudly booed throughout by significant sections of the audience on opening night.

Hermanis has taken as his inspiration the projected human mission to Mars, which is scheduled for 2025. For him, the Faust of the modern age is scientist Stephen Hawking, who himself has spoken of his desire to embrace the wonders of space travel. Although some ideas work better than others, there are moments that are inspired and indeed moving, not least when the superb dancers give life to Hawking’s disabled body, lifting the actor who plays him (Dominique Mercy) into a dance of weightlessness in space.

With only four solo singers, three of whom are central to the piece, the Opéra de Paris has chosen an all-star cast, with German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the pivotal role of Faust until December 20 (to be replaced by the exciting young American tenor Bryan Hymel December 23-29), Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel singing the part of Mephistopheles and French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch as Marguerite. While Kaufmann and Koch are familiar faces on the Paris stage, Terfel is making only his third appearance with the Opéra de Paris, and it was a pleasure to experience his rich voice and powerful presence.

Koch was also in fine form and sang her role with aching intensity. As for Kaufmann, he met the considerable challenges that Berlioz gives to Faust (with a vocal range from very high lyrical tenor to heroic baritone) with consummate ease. The evenness and beauty of his tone (I would have paid the entrance price to hear just one of his exquisite pianissimi), combined with his charismatic stage presence, explain why he is the most versatile and sought-after tenor around at the moment.

Philippe Jordan marshaled the large orchestral and choral forces with precision and imagination, managing to make artistic sense of the very disparate strands of musical idiom that populate Berlioz’s unevenly brilliant piece. I was pleased that the audience showed its appreciation for the excellence of the singers, dancers and orchestra, even though Hermanis and his team were (to my mind unfairly) assailed by a barrage of boos when they took their bow. As the person sitting next to me remarked wearily, “Some people come to the opening night in Paris just to boo.”

Nick Hammond

Opéra National de Paris: Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Bastille. Tel.: 0 892 89 90 90 or + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23 (from abroad). Remaining performances: December 11, 17, 23 and 29 at 7:30pm; December 15 at 8:30pm; December 13, 20 and 27 at 2:30pm. Tickets: €5-€231.

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