Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Faust damned and saved

In the 1840s, Berlioz took the decision that Faust's ride with Mephistopheles, briefly featured in Goethe and pictured below by Delacroix, should end up not at the prison with the condemned Marguerite but in Pandemonium.


When he completed his original Huit Scènes de Faust in 1828 (his official Op. 1, preceding the Symphonie fantastique), Berlioz knew only of Goethe's Part One, where Marguerite is saved and a big question mark hangs over the protagonist's soul. By the time of La Damnation de Faust, he could have read the vast and astonishing Part Two, nominally completed two months before Goethe's death in  March 1832 (what a span - first drafts begun 60 years earlier, in 1772), but chose to ignore its conclusions. There's much more striving towards the light here, not least the 'Classical Walpurgis Night' which culminates in the sea processional for Galatea on Venus/Aphrodite's shell, inspired by Raphael's gorgeous fresco in Rome's Palazzo Farnesina, which Goethe knew well (it's certainly on my list of top 10 things you have to see in the Eternal City),


and also the failed flight, Icarus-like, of Faust's son with Helen of Troy, Euphorion - the source for this creature of light here seems to have been Annibale Carracci's The Genius of Fame.


I've now spent six Mondays on La Damnation with my Opera in Depth students, and while our circlings round Berlioz have yielded plenty of other musical riches - so pleased to discover the Abbado recording of Schumann's Faust-Szenen, for instance, with a young and burnished Bryn Terfel following in the footsteps of Fischer-Dieskau on the patchily-cast Britten recording - as well as the revelation of Gustaf Gründgens, Klaus Mann's and István Szabó's model for Mephisto, in a colour Hamburg film of Goethe's Part One, it's been the reading of the colossal Part Two which has taken me on a psychedelic journey, with plentiful focus in the 150 pages of 'interpretive notes' by Cyrus Hamlin to Walter Arndt's translation in the Norton Critical Edition.


No wonder the San Francisco bookship City Lights published a translation of Goethe called Tales for Transformation, a copy of which I picked up when we visited; it's all so trippy. But also underpinned by Goethe's scientific studies and his humour (I love northern devil Mephistopheles finding himself overwhelmed by the older monsters of the Grecian world in the 'Classical Walpurgis Night' act). In Act 5, Faust's enlisting of infernal help to reclaim land for a flashy modern kingdom by a pushed-back sea, and having simple inhabitants of an older way of life dispatched for getting in the way, is so disturbingly contemporary.

After this you wonder why his soul is saved. But praise be for Goethe's final 'Mountain Gorges' scene in which the Eternal Feminine leads the immortal part of Faust upwards, completed very late in Goethe's life: it's given us apotheoses from Schumann and Mahler greater far than Berlioz's sugary acceptance of Marguerite into heaven. I played the last 15 minutes of Mahler's Eighth in Chailly's Leipzig DVD on Monday, and we nearly blew the roof off Pushkin House. A treat in splendid sound and on a large screen (Chailly's Lucerne performance is to be avoided. What a shame Abbado never got round to the Eighth in his unsurpassable series there. Why any conductors dare to follow in his footsteps with the Festival Orchestra beats me).


Take your pick of other performances on YouTube, but be warned - the Haitink one from the Concertgebouw has some uncharacteristically filthy singing from Gwyneth Jones at the crucial final rise... If it's just audio you want, I'm very fond of Markus Stenz's Cologne interpretation with the best tenor in that impossible part, Brandon Jovanovich, and the splendid Orla Boylan as Soprano II (she should have been on the very top line). The whole thing levitated me at the live performance.


I can understand why Richard Jones wanted to avoid Berlioz's apotheosis in his Glyndebourne production. Robin Ticciati said he couldn't, so they found another incredible solution in which the devils have the last word (first of Richard Hubert Smith's production photos above) and Rosemary's Baby is the last reference. What an amazing achievement. Whether you buy it or not is beside the point; Jones has found a way to tell the Faust story in all those chunks of Berlioz which have only the most tangential bearing on the drama (Rakoczy March, in which he's bullied as a tutor in a military academy, and further narratives in all the later military padding).


It's sustained through a creepy Blue Angelish brothel scene for the enchantment on the banks of the Elbe, an unexpected visit to the prison where Marguerite awaits exection, and which Faust doesn't reach in the 'Ride to the Abyss'


and beyond to his bleeding guilt, a disturbing realisation of said Apotheosis in Heaven.

In Christopher Purves - magnificent in the French adaptations of Goethe punctuating the musical 'action' as in the singing of Berlioz's music -


Allan Clayton (a stunning 'Nature immense') and Julie Boulianne, meaningful in every physical gesture as well as vocal phrase, a perfect performer for Jones, we have three great artists.


And the sounds Ticciati draws from the LPO are super-refined, though I wished at the final rehearsal they'd let rip. RT's assistant in the house said it was deafening at times; well, let it be, at key points. Possibly it now is.

Richard came to talk to the students the Monday before last, hotfoot from the final rehearsal of his Boris Godunov in the Royal Opera revival. He was in a good mood, both because of that - his admiration of Bryn is boundless; he singles him out as one of the few megastars prepared to work with directors, on the language and on general understanding of the roles - and his return to Glyndebourne to see the previous Saturday's performance of Damnation. He said it was 'middle', which apparently is the highest commendation; all the singers had settled into their roles, everything was working. And from that most self-critical of directors, that's high commendation indeed. No-one took pictures this time - pity, because the blue light from the projector cast on his head made him look like one of his own demons - so I cast back to the second of his visits to the class in 2013, when I had a room at the City Lit with a piano.


We expanded upon what we'd discussed in the interview for the Glyndebourne programme, conducted some months before rehearsals had begun, namely the difference between operas which work under the steam of their own dramaturgy - Katya Kabanova, his Royal Opera production of which had so much visually in common with Damnation, Puccini's La bohème and La fanciulla del West - and those for which he had to work out a new 'book' (Handel, the Berlioz). Which takes him years. When I asked him if he would take on the entire Goethe drama, he said he didn't have the time to come to grips with such a vast cosmology: respect. And I love it that he's ever more relaxed with us, and as a result extremely funny. Love that Mensch. Meanwhile, we're on to Dvořák's Rusalka next Monday, and next term, so far confirmed, Handel's Agrippina, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Weill's Der Silbersee, Wagner's Siegfried and Strauss's Elektra, with one more tbc. If you're interested in joining, leave me a message with your email - I won't publish it but I promise to reply

20 comments:

David Damant said...

I hope that for the Gluck you take the Paris version ( " I go upon my way " is super) but at least take the Paris ending of che faro, which is vastly superior to the original

David said...

We'll have time to consider ALL versions - hearing Orfeo sung by mezzo, countertenor and tenor. Berlioz gets a look in too, of course.

Susan said...

Your knowledge is vast, and your students are lucky to have you as their guide. I'm chagrined, in stark contrast, to say I stumbled on Raphael's Galatea only because our guidebook noted the Palazzo Farnesina and it was close to our hotel. The experience, notwithstanding, was memorable, and this despite my being mesmerized by da Udine's festoons of old and new world fruits and vegetables.

David said...

I don't know about that - the main thing about this course is that I keep learning, and I took the Damnation sequence as a chance to study Goethe, especially Part Two with the superb Yale commentary, and that enriched me. But if I don't write down observations here, I can easily forget them. Just been steeped in Dante's Purgatorio in amazing 'staging' around Ravenna. Much of it did come back to me, but I'd also forgotten scenes and situations.

I think the frescoes of the Farnesina were restored relatively recently. I remember it being vastly different on our last visit from when I saw it on an inter-railing trip in the mid 1980s.

Susan said...

Yes, I do think it's true, no matter how much you know, there's plenty more to learn (and re-learn), and that's a good thing. By vague recollection only, I believe you're right about the Farnesina frescoes. I've no ability to judge quality of restoration and no basis for comparison, I can only say I found them dazzling.

David Damant said...

I still have the ( privately produced) black discs of Yvonne Minton singing Orpheus with the Cambridge University Opera Society. Paris version. The opera was managed from my house and Mrs Snowman was always on the phone since her son Nicholas Snowman was involved. It was directed by Richard Luckett, later Pepys Librarian. When we were rehearsing in the Territorial Hall all went normally until Yvonne Minton suddenly came in with " Furies, Phantoms, Monsters of Horror" when the building came to life with solders etc bursting from the various rooms, amazed at the sound.

David Damant said...

PS The performance by the CUOS I referred to was in about 1966

David said...

Splendid recollections. I wish I'd been in time to hear more live from the great Yvonne Minton. Just caught her Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos when my teenage Strauss crush began (the late Heather Harper was Ariadne, Tom Allen the Music Master - which he can STILL sing...)

David Damant said...

I cannot speak at the level of expertise normal to this blog, but I have felt that T Allen was the best Don Giovanni I have heard on a stage ( including the acting)

Susan said...

Just popping over to say I'm listening to Leonskaja play Schubert, and of course I have you to thank for that, among so much else. One of the many things I appreciate about you is that, despite knowing all you know (and you do, you know), you are as humble with that knowledge (see your comment to me above) as you are generous with sharing it.

David said...

T Allen was a bit too old for the part, IMO, when I saw him - the original Don G was 19...but of course there's no one way of playing the role. The mask-like Raimondi in the hit and miss Losey film was extraordinary. Since Giovanni is an enigma, a peculiar vortex who sucks all the other characters in, both male and female, it's very had to say WHAT he is: that's the beauty of Mozart's ambiguity.

Oh good, Sue. She's now recorded ALL the Schubert sonatas in two beautifully presented editions, four CDs each. I have the second volume lined up to review. As for sharing, I've said this before but I take the late great Mackerras mentioning in passing 'you who are publicists for music' as a compliment.

Susan said...

David, can you put up a link to the Leonskaja complete Schubert? I've searched, but am not finding it, and I would like to snap it up, if available in the US. On other fronts, was just now listening to Berlioz's 8 scenes from Faust, Le Roi de Thule, and am scratching my head trying to remember why this is so familiar to me. Story of my life!

David said...

Both Leonskaja sets are on the Easonus label, beautifully documented. Here's the link to their documenation of the first set, featuring the late sonatas: http://www.easonus.com/catalog/schubert-late-piano-sonatas There's also an entry on the latest release. Not sure why Le Roi de Too-lay should be familiar to you. Maybe excerpted on a mezzo or even soprano diva's selection? 'D'amour l'ardente flammer' is even more poignant.

Susan said...

Thanks so much for the link and info. Much appreciated.

David Damant said...

My German friends ( in Germany music and God compete for the top spot) rate Raimondi in the Losey film very highly ( I mean as a character) And as one of my secretaries once said to me, women go for men on their personality not their looks. And another said that it was not fair - women get older, and men get more distinguished. Or, as someone famous ( the name escapes me) said, men desire women, and women desire the desire of the men

David said...

Some women, some men. I think we ought to have reached the stage now where we can see desirability in the third age of both sexes, don't you?

Susan said...

Here is a counterpoint to the above: Helen Mirren gets more distinguished (and ravishing) the older she gets.

David said...

Yes - and so did Bergman's women: Harriet Andersson (whom I had the enormous pleasure of meeting in London), Bibi Andersson before her debilitating stroke, Liv Ullmann. The glamour of a great female actor, especially one who doesn't resort to plastic surgery, is always there.

Susan said...

And speaking of Harriets, Dame Harriet (Walter) is another!

David Damant said...

Or Christine Lagarde