Opera News
Stephen J. Mudge
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust, Paris, Opera Bastille, 8. Dezember 2015
La Damnation de Faust
NO SEASON AT THE PARIS OPERA is ever free of scandal, and Stéphane Lissner's first season at the “Grande boutique” is no exception. La Damnation de Faust, Berlioz's “légende dramatique” is a dramatic challenge to any producer due to its heterogeneous construction, being neither oratorio nor opera. Imagery rather than an anecdotal approach is invited, but director Alvis Hermanis and his team were greeted with overwhelming booing at the premiere of the new production on December 8, conducted by music director Philippe Jordan.

The problem here was a concept that stretched the music beyond anything that could be imagined either by the composer or by Goethe, whose writing inspired the work. Hermanis sees a twenty-first-century Faust in the disabled English scientist Stephen Hawking and a population faced with the challenge of leaving earth to populate Mars—a reference to the Mars One project, making this the metaphysical journey on which Méphistophélès sends Faust. While cosmic references abound in the work, these belong to a world of supernatural Christian faith, and to paste scientific reasoning onto the libretto undermines the dilemma of the characters.

Dominique Mercy, the dancer playing Hawking in his wheelchair, traversed the stage with mechanical diligence, but beside him Jonas Kaufmann looked ill at ease as a bespectacled Faust. During the first half of the evening Kaufmann’s baritonal coloring of the music lacked tenor overtones, but fortunately he hit form in the love music, traversing the high tessitura with great skill before unleashing the full force of his voice in a show stopping “Invocation à la nature.” The scantily clad dancers, whose “flea” choreography by Alla Sigalova had been competently wriggled, suggested something of the sensuality of the love duet. This was not shared by Faust and Marguerite, who stood with lonely indifference either side of Hawking.

It was small wonder that Sophie Koch's mezzo sounded fussed and unsteady in “D'amour l'ardente flame,” for although many of the audience would not be adverse to consuming a dozen garlic-infused snails, the sight of copulating gastropods—in sci-fi videos by Katrina Neelburga projected against the producer's boxy sets—produced at first laughter, and then ill-mannered shouts of protest as Koch wheeled on Hawking during the introduction to the aria, making it impossible to enjoy Jordan's sumptuous orchestral accompaniment. Jordan was attentive as ever to detail, but, perhaps influenced by the would-be high seriousness of the production, did not deliver the sparky sharp edges of the score, with staid tempos and an orchestra of moderate precision.

Something of the spirit of the work was captured by Bryn Terfel's Méphistophélès who, despite some rough tone, brought urbane energy to the proceedings as a white-coated scientist in an evening that flagged under its concept. The chorus, in excellent form, were generally left standing in uninteresting serried ranks, not enlivened by Edwin Crossley-Moser's vigorous Brander, whose music lay too low for the baritone. As more scientific platitudes flashed across the scene, a few audience members shouted out their indifference to these lofty thoughts about the future of the planet.

Worse was to come in the epilogue of the work, Marguerite's apotheosis, sweetly announced by the celestial voice of soprano Sophie Claisse. This became not the heroine's heavenly assumption, but a miracle for Hawking who was lifted out of his power-chair and tortuously found use of his paralyzed limbs (Mercy managed the director’s bidding well enough). It was a scene of tasteless horror. Kaufmann took his place in Hawking’s wheelchair and the curtain fell on an evening best seen with eyes wide shut.

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