“La Damnation de Faust” by Berlioz: an awakening to love, can sometimes lead, to the redemption of a lost soul…

MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Wednesday January 29th, 2020.

This week friends, welcome back, once again, to another thrilling evening at the MET Opera!

And a very different one, from what we usually, are given to admire!

Yay!

Although tragic, it is about an iconic legend.

Yay!

Let’s (re)discover, a unique, incredibly philosophical, sad, and complex, (a tad unrealistic perhaps?), yet stunning, “dramatic legend”, of the opera repertoire; presented last Wednesday, in a concerto form (although, it really should be presented, in an “opera” form, if you ask me, to be even more riveting); which premiered in 1846; by a legendary French composer, who had a profound impact on many of his peers, the great Berlioz; which is about the sacrifice of one’ s own soul, that a doomed scholar, is ready to make, to save the woman he loves…

Oh boy!

This “dramatic legend” from Berlioz, was inspired by a bold translation in 1828, in French, by Gérard de Nerval, of Goethe’s famously dramatic poem, written over a long period (1773-1832), the iconic “Faust”.

And Berlioz, with the help of his librettist, Gandonnière, puts his own “twist”, to this doomed, yet “redeemed”, archetypal “Faustian” figure; which indeed, did fascinate, all of Europe, in the 19th century, in all of the arts: musically, visually, and in literature.

Oh boy!

And various versions of this “Faustian” tale, existed in Western Europe, even prior, to Goethe’s poem, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

How about that?

And all this context, which I am mentioning, is to explain, why this poem, is still, so well known!

How about that?

So Berlioz, after discovering Goethe’s epic “Faust” poem translation, by Nerval, worked on an initial “idea”, for his “Damnation”, soon after its translation was released. Yet Berlioz, then, let his “idea” simmer, and reworked it, some more, 18 years later, with his librettist, Gandonnière.

And this is truly, a major fact, to keep in mind, in my opinion; to know that Berlioz, had his “La Damnation de Faust”, in the back burner of his creative spirit, for so many years; which to me, explains clearly, and suddenly, why this piece, is so incredibly rich, musically speaking.

Yay!

Also, one needs to understand as well, a few other major characteristics, about Berlioz, before I get to my opinion, of “La Damnation de Faust”‘ delivery, last Wednesday; so we can appreciate his “Damnation”, even more.

Berlioz, like many “Romantics” of the time, was totally entranced and fascinated, with many intense notions: fascinated, first and foremost, with the idea of an idealistic love; fascinated also, with humanity’s capacity to believe in a greater God, as well as fascinated, with human frailties and wanderings; and finally, Berlioz was also fascinated, with Shakespearean or Byronic intensity.

Who can blame him?

Yay? or Oh boy!

Both, I think; let me explain:

Let’s say “Yay”, to idealistic love, in all its forms; as it always, always, always, brings additional light, joy and fulfillment, in one’s life, without disrespecting anyone.

Yay!

And “Oh boy”, to anything dark.

And let’s also, keep in mind, that a few years before writing, “La Damnation de Faust”, one could feel, in some of Bizet’s work, his joy and passion, when expressing musically, the notion of idealistic and joyful love, and human wanderings.

Berlioz famously said: “Love cannot express the idea of music, while music may give an idea of love.” 

How wonderful!

And this passion in him, was felt by number of his peers:

Théophile Gautier, who was also, his friend, and a neighbor, wrote: “Berlioz represents the romantic musical idea, unexpected effects in sound, tumultuous and Shakespearean depth of passion”.

How about that ?

Specifically, I am thinking of a work for piano, composed in 1841, and of two songs, in particular, of his “Les Nuits d’Eté” cycle, a setting of six poems, by Théophile Gautier, completed just a few years, just before compositing his “La Damnation de Faust”. I have in mind, the joyful “Villanelle”, about love in the springtime, listening to blackbirds whistle.

Yay!

Enjoy!

Isn’t it charming?

I love it!

Let’s now, listen also to a second song, from Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’Eté” cycle, let’s listen to “Absence”, about that very notion, in matters of love at times, which probably inspired Berlioz, as well, for his “La Damnation of Faust”, in particular, when expressing what Marguerite probably felt, for her Faust, while awaiting him, in Act 3; and which Faust, probably felt as well, in his own way, for his Marguerite, in Act 4, when he finally decides to save her.

Oh boy!

And I don’t really know, why that it is, to me, but that is.

Why not?

That’s what I like to imagine, anyway!

Yay!

Enjoy!

https://youtu.be/ZgmDFe95BL0

Can you see how inspiring for “La Damnation de Faust”, that truthful song, about absence, in matters of love, could have been for Berlioz?

I am quite sure, you will agree with me, once I tell you, what the plot is about.

I’ll get to it, in a short moment. Hang on, just a moment longer.

But, before we get into that, another extremely important, stylistic and musical element, also struck me, about “La Damnation de Faust”, last Wednesday evening: it is the prevalence of sacred choral music; even though, Berlioz wasn’t particularly religious; yet in his “dramatic legend” version of Faust, sacred choral music, is indeed, a strong foundation for this piece; in stronger ways even, than for other composers of the 19th century; fascinated as well, by this iconic poem; isn’t that incredible?

How about that?

And maybe, it is because Berlioz, wrote it earlier, than the two most other famous 19th century versions.

Who knows?

Berlioz’ version, was composed in 1846, let me remind you; and that version, was then followed, in 1859, with Gounod’s own “Faust”, and later, in 1868, by Boito’s own “Mephistofele” opera.

How about that?

And like many composers of his era, although never a church composer, Berlioz was repeatedly drawn, to religious subjects; and his intimate knowledge of the religious experience, is reflected in his contemplative, ecstatic passages.

How about that?

Let’s now listen to a short excerpt, of his beautiful “Grande Messe des Morts”/requiem, composed in 1837, a few years before his “Damnation”:

Isn’t it awesome and unique?

Just stunning, incredibly fervent, and almost mystical/transcendental?

I am floored!

And ladies and gentlemen, believe it or not, but the sacred choral music long passages, from Berlioz’ “La Damnation de Faust”, are even more extraordinary, in my opinion, throughout the piece.

How about that?

You really need to go to the theater, to experience it!

Hope you will!

But you really need also, to see it, with proper production values, if you can; because, many of my friends left the theater, after the intermission; because the “concert”/ “chamber music” format, was just too stifling, constraining, for this work in their (as well as my) opinion; and this beautiful dramatic legend, indeed does really deserve, a strong visual, imaginative, oxygenated production; to give it, the grandeur it deserves, just as Robert Lepage’s production, a few years back, did; and paid a wonderful homage, to Berlioz’s genius.

Yay!

Let’s take a look:

Isn’t it even more majestic, that way?

Just like sacred choral music, or Bach’s works can be, for those who have an affinity for it.

And, like Gounod, Berlioz had a profound admiration for Bach, as you can see, from this great comparison:

Of course, Gounod, took it a notch further, than Berlioz did, with this great piece from 1853, which Gounod adapted from Bach, and which I am fairly certain, that Berlioz loved, as well.

That’s what I imagine!

Why not?

Let’s listen to this wonderful soloist, which I particularly like:

Enjoy!

Isn’t it gorgeous?

And the only other thing, I will say about Gounod, is that his own “Faust” version, by many, is considered “elegant”, like all of Gounod’s music.

And for the French crowds, from the 20th century, there is also another aria, which we are particularly attached to, for all of us, comic strip fans of Hergé’s “Tintin”, who like one of its diva characters (la “Castafiore”), all just love hearing, any talented soprano, sing for us, “Faust’s “Jewel” aria:

Yay!

Enjoy!

Isn’t it great, and elegant, as well?

Yay!

Anyway, as always, I got carried away.

Yay!

Let’s get back to Berlioz’ “La Damnation de Faust”.

And last Wednesday evening, Gardner, British Maestro extraordinaire, boldly conducted Berlioz’ “dramatic legend”, with incredible sensitivity and restraint, which made in my opinion, the piece even more enjoyable; and especially, since we did not have any visual production to help our imagination soar even higher, the conducting needed to be, which it was, particularly flawless!

Yay!

And the singers, especially two of them, were absolutely wonderful: gorgeous Latvian soprano, Elina Garanča, as the ideal, beautiful, demure, and pure woman, depicted it perfectly; charismatic Russian bass, Ildar Abdrazakov, was incredibly subtle and powerful as Méphistofélès; and I wasn’t as taken, with American tenor, Bryan Hymel, who lacked complexity in his acting skills, in my mind, as Faust.

So after this very, very, very, long intro/prelude of mine, what is this “Faustian” legend about?

The plot is extremely simple: in all versions across the centuries, it tells the story of a highly intelligent, and sensitive man, given easily to boredom (poor thing, and how can that be, when life is so rich?).

His name is Faust, and he is often depicted as either, a scholar (or sometimes an alchemist), who sells his soul to the devil, for knowledge, eternal youth, riches, and unending pleasures, and whose soul will be redeemed by love, even though, it ends dramatically.

Oh boy!

And in Berlioz’ version, it is a four act legend, and it is called “La Damnation de Faust”.

And here are, in a nutshell, to me, the most important elements of the plot:

In Act 1, we discover a bored and weary Faust. Oh boy!

In Act 2, Faust is promised restoration of his youth, knowledge, faith and the fulfillment of his wishes by Méphistophélès, including a dream vision of beautiful woman, Marguerite, that Faust falls in love with. Oh boy!

In Act 3, Faust and Méphistophélès hide in Marguerite’s room, Faust and Marguerite fall in love; and Faust then, retreats to protect Marguerite’s reputation. Oh boy!

In Act 4, Faust after having seduced Marguerite, abandons her; Marguerite awaits patiently his return. Faust calls upon Nature to cure him from his wariness. Yet later, upon hearing from Méphistophélès, that Marguerite is in prison, having given accidentally, to her mother, too much sleeping potion, Faust immediately agrees, to offer his own soul to the devil, to save Marguerite. Oh boy!

Faust is then, promptly, whisked away, to Hell, and Marguerite, is saved, and welcomed to Heaven. Oh boy!

Let’s now, listen to my two favorite musical passages of this dramatic legend:

First, let’s listen to the gorgeous aria, by Marguerite, which speaks of her melancholic ardent love, for her Faust; to me, it is one of the most gorgeous love arias ever, of the opera repertoire; and the beautiful Elina, sings it, every time, incredibly well.

Yay!

Enjoy!

Isn’t it just, one of the most beautiful arias ever, about love’s complexities, at times?

I just love it!

What a genius Berlioz!

And finally, let’s listen to the beautiful choral aria, which welcomes Marguerite to Heaven; it is so incredibly peaceful and soulful, it really tugs at my heart strings:

Let’s listen:

Isn’t it just gorgeous?

Just heavenly to me!

Of course, thankfully, love in all its forms, can be way more wonderful, and less dramatic, friends; just like it is, in this wonderful excerpt, from Curtiz’ 1954 “White Christmas” film, between family, friends, and the one, who makes your heart beat, a little faster!

Yay!

Enjoy!

Soft…

Fluttering…

Joyful…

Peaceful…

Happy…

Loving…

Eternal butterflies 😊