Review: Berlioz’ Faust Fantastique – Lyric Opera Does “Damnation” – Chicago, March 8, 2010

Hector Berlioz’ musical composition, “La Damnation de Faust”, never ceases to be both bewildering and beguiling. Much about it seems to belong in the opera house, but its mixture of  irresistible music and episodic subject matter has made its introduction to the operatic standard repertory as elusive as its message.

Lyric Opera, which had never performed any Berlioz stage work in the five and a half decades of its existence, chose to leap into Berlioz by creating an ambitious new production.  That production was the conception of English stage director Stephen Langridge, the talented son of the famous Britten tenor Peter Langridge (who died at age 70 during the seven performance run of son Stephen’s work in Chicago).

Stephen Langridge assembled a team, some of whom, like him, had not worked in the United States previously. The team new to Chicago consisted of the Cypriot-born British set and costume designer George Souglides and the German lighting designer Wolfgang Goebbel. Among the team’s veterans with prior Lyric Opera experience were Projection Designer John Boesche, Choreographer Philippe Giraudeau and Ballet Mistress August Tye.

Berlioz created a musical masterpiece that is so unconventional that to describe it, he created a unique category that he called a legende dramatique. (To the best of my knowledge, the only other artist to use that term was Maurice Pottecher, who competed for France in the Arts Competition at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic games. Whatever his talents at creating a legende dramatique, Pottecher, like the more famous Italian competitor, Gabriele d’Annunzio, failed to win the 1912 Gold Medal, and the sport eventually disappeared from the Olympic games.)

Although Berlioz clearly wished to mount his legende dramatique as an opera, it presented production problems from its earliest days, that defied even his expansive imagination as to how it could be staged. Yet, its music was so irresistible that performances defaulted to oratorio format, with its soloists and chorus statically singing with a symphony orchestra. No matter how suboptimal, experiencing “Damnation” performed as an oratorio was preferable to it remaining an unperformed opera.

“Damnation” gets little attention as an influence on the development of the standard repertory in opera. But it was Berlioz (who with the assistance of writer Almire Gandonniere) who selected and strung together the episodes that form “Damnation’s” plot (and would gives some hints to librettist Jules Barbier and composer Charles Gounod to the story line that could be mined from Goethe’s sprawling work. Barbier and Gounod would find elements both within its dramatic and melodic structure to create their own revolution in French opera. There is insufficient appreciation for just how different Gounod’s “Faust” was from the operatic conventions of its time.

Even so, the relationship (while on Earth) between the title character and Mephistopheles in the Berlioz version differs from their equivalents in the Gounod version. Berlioz’ Faust is a rational thinker who is disillusioned about his intellectual work. The realities of war are an affront to him. At first merely a voyeur to earth’s sensual life, he comes under the spell of Satan, who introduces him to the vision of Marguerite and simultaneously the vision of Faust to Marguerite.

Desirous of spending time alone with Faust, Marguerite inadvertently overdoses her mother with sleeping bills, and she is arrested for murder. Satan gives Faust the option to save Marguerite from execution in exchange for his soul.  Faust agrees to this bargain and, signing away his soul in blood, is taken by Mephistopheles to Hell.

Obviously, Faust’s string of experiences had meaning to Berlioz, but what those experiences mean was to an extent lost in the translation of Goethe’s unorthodox literary creation to Berlioz’ unorthodox musical ideas. Berlioz, who is a closely identified with the Romantic movement as Lord Byron and Berlioz’ friend, painter Eugene Delacroix, was first attracted to Goethe in the 1820s.  But nearly two centuries have passed since then and the Europe to which Goethe’s writings relate is no longer recognizable.

Thus, Langridge the production designer created a backstory, with a more contemporary relevance, to explain Faust’s intellectual quest and disillusionment. His Faust is a mathematician, whose mathematical speculations are aided by modern computer technology.

Mathematics is a discipline that is constructed by humans, but consists of abstractions that exist independently of human social interactions and concerns.  Yet every mathematician not only works in that world of abstractions but, as a human, also exists in a particular space at a particular time. Where to place Faust in time and space is the choice of production designer Langridge.

There are three geographic reference points in “Damnation”, one specific – a particular tavern that Goethe frequented as a medical student at Leipzig University – and two more general  – the plains of Hungary and the banks of the Elbe River.

Langridge uses these geographic reference points to invent a quite specific time and place to fix our Faust – at the bulky monitor of a desktop personal computer in East Germany, prior to the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Modern stage directors, particularly those of British heritage, seem fascinated by the five-decade period in the 20th century, when the Soviet bloc of police states held much of the population of the Eurasian continent in its thrall.

Time-shifting operas from previous centuries to 20th century “Iron Curtain” countries – real or imagined – often seems contrived, as one may discern from my recent reviews of productions of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” located in an imaginary Soviet Bloc Brabant (see: Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009) or Handel’s “Tamerlano” located in a Soviet Bloc Samarkand (see: Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet: Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2009).

But for “Damnation”, not only does the time-shift to a police state work, but, as will be argued below, it connects many of the dots in a libretto whose elements many find difficult to rationalize.

Notes on the Performance

Sir Andrew Davis leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra in the beautiful first passages of “Damnation”. Faust appears is a small rectangular room that is several feet above the stage floor. The room is enclosed by the stage curtains so that the image we see is like a framed picture, or the screen of a television set. Here we see the first of John Boesche’s projections, that flash first mathematical formulas, then streams of light. Paul Groves sings Berlioz’ Faust in the classical French style, including the use of head tones. [For my review of another Paul Groves performance in a French opera, see: Christine Brewer, Paul Groves Lead Elegantly Sung “Alceste”: Santa Fe – August 1, 2009.]

[Below: the mathematician Faust (Paul Groves) using his PC to expand the horizons of  his profession; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

After Faust contemplates nature in his monologue Le vieil hiver, Faust’s computer cubicle is lowered to the stage floor where the chorus, spreading red and white checkered tablecloths for their picnic lunches, represents the townfolk.

The dancers have several distinct roles as non-singing actors. The men dancers are soldiers in their camouflage fatigues, the women are in cheerleader outfits. Occasionally, cheerleaders will cross the stage pushing baby buggies. Later in the performance we understand that the townsfolk engaged in the bucolic picnic, the soldiers and cheerleaders are all agents of infernal forces.

I had previously discussed the inspired work of the choreographers Giraudeau and Tye at the San Francisco Opera (See: Night at the Museum: “Iphigenie en Tauride” Springs to Life in S. F. – June 17, 2007), a production, in which Susan Graham and Paul Groves starred, that was later seen at Lyric Opera. But production designer Robert Carsen’s concept for staging Gluck’s “Iphigenie” emphasized movements en masse of the dancers onstage, while the chorus sang seated in the orchestra pit behind the orchestra’s musicians.

By contrast, Langridge’s concept integrates Giraudeau’s dance team and the Lyric Opera chorus onstage in ways that I found to be spectacular (and, yes, fantastic in the adjective’s original sense).

It is this picnic scene, and the immediately following scenes of the advancing Hungarian army and church service that we experience the true genius of Langridge’s production. Langridge has devised a way to connect these seemingly disparate scenes (whose sequence and rapidity baffled would-be production designers for a century and a half). He integrates the large Lyric Opera chorus under Donald Nally with the work of 20 solo dancers, choreographed by Giraudeau and Tye. (Chorus and dancers were further augmented by the children of the Anima-Young Singers of Greater Chicago, and by actors and supernumeraries.)

He uses central themes to integrate those elements. The townspeople act as a mob, the soldiers and police perform their official duties, the soldiers’ wives and lovers bear children and participate in memorial ceremonies for their fallen spouses. Yet, all these police state citizens double as demons from hell engaged in securing the one soul whose intellectual pursuits had until then allowed him to be impervious to what was happening in the society around him – that of the mathematician Faust.

Those themes fit any police state (and some would extend the metaphor to whichever democracy with whose domestic or foreign policies they might differ at a point in time). But Langridge has chosen the DDR, the former East German socialist republic, as the symbol of the police state. It is one whose former flag is deliciously theatrical and it is one that has conveniently disappeared from Earth (perhaps resurrected in Mephistopheles’ Hell).

[Below: the flag of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR); resized image of a Jaume Olle design.]

Although I enjoyed the Giraudeau-Tye choreography for “Iphigenie”, I found their work with “Damnation” to be particularly ingenious. Most of the male dancers attend the picnic in Army camouflage fatigues. Their “girls back home” appear in the cheerleader/”song girl” outfits associated with American high schools. Faust, his computer cubicle having descended into the picnic grounds, sits on a park bench where one of the town’s young men is making out with his special song girl.

Faust exclaims that the sons of the Danube are preparing for combat (Ah! les fils du Danube aux combats se preparent!) Suddenly, soldiers in camouflage grab the lover boy. His hair is shaved into a military buzz cut, and he is stripped to his tidy whites, dressed in his own camouflage fatigue uniform, then joins the other soldiers into the dance routines that represent training for military ground maneuvers.

Thus the picnic is transformed into the Rakoczy March scene (a Berlioz invention, not present in Goethe’s work) with the symbols of the militaristic DDR dominating the scene. The song girls lead cheers for the soldiers and help them don facial paint to complete their camouflage for battle. The projections utilize the electronic gun site targeting that is essential to computer-assisted modern warfare.

[Below: the soldiers who serve both the police state and the legions of Hell; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Then seven coffins, each draped with the DDR flag, are brought on stage by the soldiers in their omnipresent fatigues. Widowed (and pregnant) song girls receive the flags of their fallen soldier spouses in ceremonies that observe the precision of solemn military funerals, with their choreographed “about faces” and other rituals of soldiers honoring their dead.

We are now in the church scene where a monkish figure is in evidence among the congregation singing its hosannas. He stands near a tall pole in center stage. We come to be aware that the monk is Mephistopheles (John Relyea), and, in time he discards his robe, revealing a shimmering blue-violet coat like that of a Las Vegas lounge singer. He stands behind Faust, his hands tracing the shape of Faust’s head, as if staking his claim to Faust’s soul. He enters into a conditional agreement with Faust to show him the worldly delights his life of scholarship has denied him, without any obligation on Faust’s part. Trust the Devil that there are no strings attached!

Mephisto has a succession of arias that includes some of the most interesting (and often hauntingly beautiful) of French vocal music. Bass-baritone John Relyea, who is increasingly associated with the diabolical roles, was superb as Mephistopheles, with a beautiful sound throughout the range of the role.

[Below: Mephistopheles (John Relyea) determines to earn the soul of Faust (Paul Groves); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Two of the coffins have been opened to reveal two voluptuous maidens in rat costumes. The scene transforms to Auerbach’s tavern in Leipzig, where a Tim Burtonish Brander (Christian Van Horn) is host, who sings a rousing “Song of the Rat”.

[Below: Christian Van Horn as Brander, host of a popular Leipzig night spot; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Once the University students begin their revels one of the rat ladies begins a pole dance on the very pole that the monk Mephistopheles stood near in the church scene.

[Below: a pole-dancing rat enlivens the entertainment at Auerbach’s Keller in Leipzig; edited image, based on a photograph, from]

As the University students begin the “Requiescat in pace” the rat ladies return to their coffins. Mephistopheles, of course aware that Faust finds no happiness in the bar scene and pines for a long term relationship, has offered him the vision of Marguerite, who is first seen briefly pushing her mother in a wheelchair. As Relyea’s satan sings the magical Voici des roses, Faust’s dreams of Marguerite (Susan Graham) become more vivid.

[Below: Marguerite (Susan Graham) sits in her apartment; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

In another of this production’s truly inspired elements, the characters that represent the Gnomes and Sylphs that sing that most magically beautiful of Berlioz choruses Dors! heureux Faust (Sleep, happy Faust!), repeat the symbology that will continue throughout the production. We become aware that the townspeople, the soldiers in camouflage, the song-girls, and the students at Auerbach’s tavern are as much part of the forces of evil as Brander’s diabolical coterie, the rat girls and the chorus of demons. All these recurring images represent for us the wide-ranging imaginations of Berlioz and Langridge.

But, as the second part of the evening commences after the intermission, the dancers and chorus have another assignment – as Mephistopheles’ agents to bring about Faust’s seduction and disgrace of Marguerite. A stage above the stage is divided into three parts. Two are the adjoining rooms of Marguerite (in the center) and her mother (to the audience’s right). On the other side is a balcony terrace that Marguerite uses for fresh air and for her trysts with the Fausts, both real and in her fantasies.

As we drift into the entangled dream worlds of Faust and Marguerite, pairs of dancers portray Faust and Marguerite in increasingly complex interactions, at times with Groves and Graham acting as themselves, at other times, when they are sleeping, with their avatars acting for them in their dreams.

Marguerite brings a cup of tea to her mother, who sits in her room watching television. Soon the dream images make us aware that the tea contains the contents of a prescription drug bottle (the “sleeping potion” of Goethe’s play) and Marguerite’s avatars continue to bring her mother more cups. Satan is at work, with Relyea’s Mephistopheles passing through the wall between the apartments, at one point watching TV with Marguerite’s mother.

[Below: Marguerite (Susan Graham) listens for her mother, while Mephistopheles (John Relyea) lurks in her mother’s room; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Although Graham appears in the first half as the mute vision, she is a dominant presence in the second half of the evening, beginning with the enchanting recitative Que l’Air est Etouffaint and the first of her two great arias, Autrefois un Roi de Thule. Of her performance, the highest tribute possible is that it was consistent with her reputation as an incomparable artist. She met my high expectations of her. [For my review of another Susan Graham performance, see: Graham, Swenson, Prina Luminous in S. F.’s Stellar “Ariodante” – June 15, 2008.]

Graham’s Marguerite is joined on her balcony by Groves’ Faust. Her ecstasy at being with her dream lover in person, causes her to dose her mother with increasing amounts of the sleeping pill-laced tea.

From this point in the opera, Mephistopheles takes charge. In a grand coup de theatre, impressively singing what is probably the most famous aria from the opera, Devant la maison, he enlists Wills o’ the Wisp and other infernal forces (of course the now familiar Langridge images)  to confuse and destroy Marguerite. Marguerite’s vigilant neighbors, suspicious of the goings on, crowd into her mother’s apartment to determine if there is foul play.

[Below:  at right, a group of neighbors enter Marguerite’s mother’s room to check on her, in the center Mephistopheles communicates with townspeople milling below from Marguerite’s bedroom, and, at left, Faust and Marguerite are together on her balcony; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

Finally, in a chilling succession of scenes, Graham’s Marguerite sings her second aria, L’amour l’ardente flamme. The neighbors have reported a crime to their local police, who now have crime scene investigators determining the cause of the mother’s death. A police matron stands ready to arrest Marguerite, and does so as soon as the CSI team has confirmed that criminal evidence implicates her.

Marguerite has been convicted of murder and is to be executed. Mephistopheles, who has promised Faust that he can determine his own fate, gives Faust the choice to save Marguerite in exchange for agreeing to serve him in Hell. Faust signs the document in his own blood (Mephistopheles having the instrument for a blood draw handy, as if it were a ballpoint pen). Then the terrifying Ride to the Abyss takes place, in which Faust’s eternal fate is sealed.

Personal observations

There are many elements to praise in this production. First, the trio of principals are deservedly recognized as performers of the first rank in each of these roles, and the chorus and orchestra performed excellently. Langridge’s ideas consistently made sense and brought a unifying theme to a work of genius so sophisticated that successful realizations of it have eluded many who have tried to mount it.

I, myself, was so impressed by the 20 solo dancers that I believe each of the – Kurt Adametz, Victor Alexander, Leah Barsky, Andrea Beasom, Melissa Bloch, Karen Castleman, Paul Christiano, Kari Gregg, Veronica Guadalupe, Jessie Gutierrez, Jarrett Kelly, Hogan McLauglin, Dmitri Peskov, Todd Rhoades, John Ross, Yael Levitin Saban, James Monroe Stevko, J. P. Tenuta, Nefertiti Thomas and Tiffany Vann – should be separately identified in this review.

In my judgment, the Langridge production has advanced the cause of  presenting “Damnation of Faust” as an opera. The integration of music and dance, the classical ideal of the great 18th century composer Gluck, is achieved, in a reading of Berlioz’ libretto and score that has relevance to our century.

Its revival may be limited to opera companies with the stage equipment to handle complex sets that appear to be suspended in air and to assemble a large cast of dancers and chorus to support the four principals. But for a company with the resources to mount it, this is a production that I would not hesitate to recommend for revival in Chicago and for presentation elsewhere in future seasons.