A listener's guide to Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust

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Get concert ready with our Listener’s Guide to The Damnation of Faust Berlioz’s epic musical re-telling one of the quintessential myths of Western culture. Book tickets to Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust

‘Audiences and critics in Berlioz’s day, and long after, didn’t always know what to make of his weird instrumental effects — honking bassoons, ranks of timpani and masses of brass, in unusual ranges and even stranger combinations.

That was only the start of Berlioz’ strangeness. He had visions. The pandemonium of sound in the “Damnation” must be heard to be believed.’ Los Angeles Times

In a nutshell

  • Performances of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust are a rarity due to its vast staging and technical requirements
  • MSO’s performance will feature four soloists, over 160 chorus members and a 90 piece orchestra.
  • It is said that Berlioz never intended for it to be staged. Referring to his work as a ‘légende dramatique’ (a category he made up), it is part cantata, part opera, and takes its inspiration from a play that was itself billed as ‘deliberately unstageable’.
  • The music for Faust is celebrated for its dazzling orchestral brilliance, dramatic pacing, freshness of harmonies and remarkable melodies.

The composer

  • By the time it was written Berlioz had become famous off the back off Symphonie fantastique, Harold in Italy, and Romeo and Juliet.
  • Berlioz’s flamboyant use of sound and odd instrumental effects and combinations resulted in him being referred to as both as a madman and a genius.

The plot

Faust (Andrew Staples) is a man who is alienated and in a state of deep despair. He contemplates drinking poison, but then Méphistolphélès (Bryn Terfel), the devil personified as a human being, comes to him with a proposition: should Faust follow him and forget about life as a scholar, and he will have access to pleasure, happiness and everything he desires. To sweeten the deal, Méphistolphélès – with the help of magic and fiendish creatures – presents a young woman, Marguerite (Renata Pokupić), to Faust and they fall in love. But to avoid disgrace and Marguerite’s mother’s fury, they have to part. After they part, Faust finds out from Méphistolphélès that Marguerite has been thrown in prison for having poisoned her mother with a sleeping beverage. Méphistolphélès promises that he will free her if Faust agrees to sell his soul to him and become his servant. Faust agrees and as soon as this happens, he is thrust in Hell – an apocalypse where blood flows, skeletons dance and the lakes are set on fire, while Marguerite, the naive soul which love lead astray, is welcomed in Heaven.

Read the libretto for Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust (French / English translation)

Look out for:

‘The orchestra gets plenty of opportunities to shine’ says Sir Andrew Davis. ‘The familiar Hungarian march, the delicate Dance of the Sylphs and the hair-raising Ride to the Abyss are wonderful examples of Berlioz’s instrumental wizardry. We are thrilled to be welcoming such a marvelous cast, led by the great Bryn Terfel as the calculating Méphistophélès and English tenor Andrew Staples as the gullible Faust.’

HIghlights:

  • The Hungarian March (also known as the Rákóczi March), Part I, Scene 3 – an eighteenth century melody that has inspired many variations, and is the unofficial state anthem of Hungary.
  • The delicate Dance of the Sylphs (Part II, Scene 7 – Ballet des sylphes ) – an orchestral depiction of Faust’s vision of Marguerite, accompanied by darting creatures of the air, after he has been lulled to sleep by Méphistolphélès on the banks of the Elbe
  • The Ride to the Abyss (Part IV, Scene 18 – La Course à l’abîme) – a wild, reckless, galloping ride towards eternal damnation
  • The Song of the Rat (Chanson de Brander – Brander’s Song: ‘Song of a Rat’ – Part II, Scene 6), tribute to a dead kitchen rat, which has earned the dubious distinction of a place among the top 10 operatic drinking songs ending with the sublimely twisted closing chorus of ‘Amen, rest in peace’.
  • Méphistolphélès Song (Part II, Scene 6 Chanson de Méphistolphélès) – literally translated as ‘song of the Devil’, its seductive melody conceals the true intentions of the dastardly Méphistophélès (the Devil).

Trivia

  • Sometimes referred to as one of the two quintessential myths of western culture (the other being Don Giovanni), the story of Faust was an obsession for many of the greatest composers of 19th century. Countless works were inspired by the myth, including Liszt’s A Faust Symphony, Part II of Mahler’s Symphony No.8, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust and Charles Gounod’s opera.
  • In 2012, Terry Gilliam created a version of The Damnation of Faust for the English National Opera. Compressing several centuries of German culture into one outlandish production, it even manages to have its own ‘Monty Python moment’ referencing the ‘Knights who say ni’.

‘Faust and Mephisto’s motorbike ride to the gates of hell, dodging “birds” that are aircraft dropping bombs, Faust’s entry to – and exit from – hell itself, and the chilling transformation in Act I of the songs of the Rat and the Flea into anti-Semitic cabaret horrors. And there’s a brilliant moment at which Gilliam literally turns back time: the precision of its execution alone would have been astounding even if it hadn’t happened to work conceptually’. Independent UK

In describing the process of bringing the work to life, Gilliam told The Daily Telegraph, ‘Berlioz was crackers. He suffered like I do’

Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust is at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hall on 20 and 21 March, 2015.
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