The Damnation of Faust
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Friday 25 August 2017, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Edo de Waart, conductor
Andrew Staples … Faust
Alisa Kolosova … Marguerite
Eric Owens … Méphistophélès
James Clayton … Brander
New Zealand Opera Chorus
La Damnation de Faust – Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
The short story (tldr):
The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz was a unclassifiable ‘légende dramatique’ – a staged opera – an archetypal narrative lasting 2 hours and 40 minutes. The music crept up on me, incrementally, and by the descent to hell and Marguerite’s transcendent ascent to paradise I was quite overwhelmed. The soloists, the chorus, the orchestra, Edo de Waart were all magnificent and the ovation was sustained and rapturous. Some people need visual stimulus, some tactile, or kinaesthetic. As a musician, I didn’t need it. The Damnation of Faust resides in the ‘theatre of the imagination’.
The long story:
Before this concert, I attended a ‘prequel’ – a talk about The Damnation of Faust hosted the Listening Sessions Club for the New Zealand School of Music and Victoria University student community. It featured Dr Charles Ferrall (Associate Professor, School of English, Film, Theatre, and Media Studies) who spoke about the literary background of the Faust legend, and Dr Inge van Rij (Senior Lecturer, Musicology NZSM) who spoke about the musical context. The legend of ‘Faustus’ is centuries old and inspired many stories, plays, films – for example Christopher Marlowe in the 16th Century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 18 and 19th Century and Thomas Mann in the 20th Century.
Inge illustrated her talk with several Romantic musical examples: the lieder Gretchen am Spinnrade by Franz Schubert, D.118 (1814); the Faust Symphony in three character pictures by Franz Liszt, S.108 (1857); and the grand opera Faust by Charles Gounod (1859). These and the version by Berlioz were quite different ‘takes’ on the legend.
Berlioz labelled it a ‘légende dramatique’ (dramatic legend) and intended it for the concert hall. It is not an opera, nor oratorio, song cycle, symphony or cantata. Berlioz condemned the use of spectacle in the operatic genre of the time, and complained the visual elements prevented the audience to hear. [We could say the same about cinema now. The CG (computer graphic) effects – the ‘green screen’ – are so extensively prevalent that the dialogue, drama and the very meaning can be excessively diluted.]
Despite his feeling about the subject, some people have presented the Berlioz’s ‘Damnation of Faust‘ as an opera, with visual effects, projections, costumes, staging, props and modern contexts …. but Inge maintained that the music says it all. For example, when the galloping horses carry Faust to hell, the strings are madly sprinting, the brass are profound, the chorus have a made-up demonic language … no visual effects are necessary!
I have not heard much of Berlioz’s music – Symphonie fantastique and fragments of The Damnation of Faust like the Hungarian March or the Lullaby from Part I – so I waited in anticipation for the concert with bated breath. Or maybe baited breath – from the preview, I was hooked!
The orchestra was large but also ‘lopsided’ – there were only two clarinets (in the first half anyway) but four bassoons, no second oboe but a cor anglais and, beside the tuba, an ophicleide¹ – like an elongated euphonium [I had to consult with Mr Google and Ms Wikipedia!] The staged opera was evident with chairs for the singers and the chorus behind and no set or props.
I was surprised that the singers were introduced over a long period of time. Part I (note: not ‘Act I’ – it is a concert opera) featured only Faust (Andrew Staples) and the chorus as vocalists. Part II introduced Méphistophélès (Eric Owens) and a cameo part by Bander (James Clayton). Marguerite (Alisa Kolosova) is only introduced – in a corporeal way – after the interval. The orchestra was front and centre, visually – understandably because they were quite numerous – not a pit orchestra! – but also audibly. Often times the orchestra wove the ‘drama’, the ‘setting’ and the ’emotional character’ in quite long expositions. The orchestra was a character in the ‘opera’. I should not be surprised – that was what Berlioz meant. The sound world carried the whole operatic treatment of this story – the ‘visuals’ were a distant secondary element.
Berlioz used a lot of audio ‘tricks’ – for example: lontano, time signatures, timbral and dynamic effects. Lontano: horns and trumpets (and Méphistophélès too) were offstage to imitate a spatial awareness – the effect of ‘away in the distance’. Time signatures: several times the chorus were in one time signature and the soloists – Faust or Méphistophélès – were in another so we could detect that they were overhearing the choir. Timbral: the horns had a vicious and harsh hand-mute when the devil was working his wicked way amongst the mortals – or when the two flutes joined their piccolo neighbour with a intensely shrill piccolo trio. Dynamics: when the devil and Faust rode to hell, the dynamics were increased elementally as they approached the doors.
The singers were completely unhomogenous but despite that [or maybe because of it?] they worked marvellously together. Andrew Staples was a light lyric tenor. His tone was expressive – quite innocent and clear. At times he resorted in a falsetto when the role, in my mind, demanded a forceful declamatory tone but his descent into Hell was dramatic and frightening. Eric Owens‘ tone was a restrained, almost internal sound – it seemed that the sound was contained in him – a rumbling, subterranean tone. I expected an bigger tone – but maybe the devil should be a dark, inner voice. James Clayton and Alisa Kolosova were the dramatic and bel canto, grand operatic voices that I expected. James’s Brander was a drunken student, an almost comic role, but he delivered it professional ease. Alisa breath control and dynamic range was outstanding and her compassionate response to her role was poignant. Her two arias – the ravishing ‘Autrefois un roi de Thulé‘ with the integral viola solo from Julia Joyce, and and the tragic and breathless ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme‘, with the equally integral cor anglais solo from Michael Austin, were an heartfelt highlight – exquisite and beautifully performed by the whole ensemble.
The chorus coped with their distance from the conductor admirably – a understandable rhythmic time delay in some of their early responses – but they were robust, full-bodied and dramatic.
Maybe Berlioz would not approve but, prompted with a live performance, there were some visual clues for the audience: The soloists arrived or left judiciously; Faust contemplating the ‘student’s’ chorus; Méphistophélès and Faust observing each other; a inebriated Brander staggering – with music stand in-hand – to the stage; Marguerite and Faust enraptured glances.
I have not mentioned the music ostensibly, only incidentally, but the music was a totality – an archetypal narrative lasting 2 hours and 40 minutes – and I can’t separate it out any more. The music crept up on me, incrementally, and by the descent to hell and Marguerite’s transcendent ascent to paradise I was quite overwhelmed.
The soloists, the chorus, the orchestra, Edo de Waart were all magnificent and the ovation was sustained and rapturous. The flowers for the soloist and conductor were re-presented by Alisa to the Julia Joyce, and Edo to Michael Austin. The audience approved.
Frances Moore, the author of the programme notes AND the speaker in the pre-concert talk, spoke about some commentator’s opinion that Berlioz was ‘writing for the future’, particularly the cinematic (and CG technology) available now, 150 years after his creation. I guess it depends about your modes of perception, what ‘floats your boat’. Some people need visual stimulus, some tactile, or kinaesthetic. As a musician, I didn’t need it. As Frances said, The Damnation of Faust resides in the ‘theatre of the imagination’.
1: The ophicleide (/ˈɒfɪklaɪd/ OFF-i-klyde) is a keyed brass instrument similar to the tuba. It is a conical-bore keyed instrument belonging to the bugle family and has a similar shape to the sudrophone.
Ophicleide, brass wind musical instrument with a cup-shaped mouthpiece and padded keys, the bass version of the old keyed bugle. The name (from Greek ophis and kleid, ‘serpent’ and ‘key’) alludes to its improvement on the military band ‘upright serpents’ (now-obsolete S-shaped bass instruments sounded by vibration of the lips against a cup mouthpiece) by providing 11 brass keys to replace open finger holes.