Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Anthony Negus conducts Das Rheingold at Longborough

There are those in England who decorate their front lawns with ever-smiling garden gnomes, but in rural Gloucestershire the Graham family has gone one better; their converted barn is inhabited, not by diminutive porcelain figures, but fantasy creatures of Norse mythology - dwarves, giants and gods.

Carmen in San Francisco

A razzle-dazzle, bloodless Carmen at the War Memorial, further revival of Francesca Zambello’s 2006 Covent Garden production already franchised to Oslo, Sidney and Washington, D.C.

Weimar Berlin - Bittersweet Metropolis: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra

Strictly speaking, The Weimar Republic began on 11th August 1919 when the Weimar Constitution was announced and ended with the Enabling Act of 23rd March 1933 when all power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag was disbanded.

A superb Un ballo in maschera at Investec Opera Holland Park

Investec Opera Holland Park’s brilliantly cast new production of Un ballo in maschera reunites several of the creative team from last year’s terrific La traviata, with director Rodula Gaitanou, conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren and lighting designer Simon Corder being joined by the designer, takis.

A Classy Figaro at The Grange Festival

Where better than The Grange’s magnificent grounds to present Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Hampshire’s neo-classical mansion, with its aristocratic connections and home to The Grange Festival, is the perfect setting to explore 18th century class structures as outlined in Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.

A satisfying Don Carlo opens Grange Park Opera 2019

Grange Park Opera opened its 2019 season with a revival of Jo Davies fine production of Verdi's Don Carlo, one of the last (and finest) productions in the company's old home in Hampshire.

Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, 2019

The first woman composer to receive the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize could not have been a worthier candidate.

Josquin des Prez and His Legacy: Cinquecento at Wigmore Hall

The renown and repute of Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521) both during his lifetime and in the years following his death was so extensive and profound that many works by his contemporaries, working in Northern France and the Low Countries, were mis-attributed to him. One such was the six-part Requiem by Jean Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) which formed the heart of this poised concert by the vocal ensemble Cinquecento at Wigmore Hall, in which they gave pride of place to Josquin’s peers and successors and, in the final item, an esteemed forbear.

Symphonie fantastique and Lélio United – F X Roth and Les Siècles, Paris

Symphonie fantastique and Lélio together, as they should be, with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles livestreamed from the Philharmonie de Paris (link below). Though Symphonie fantastique is heard everywhere, all the time, it makes a difference when paired with Lélio because this restores Berlioz’s original context.

Ivo van Hove's The Diary of One Who Disappeared at the Linbury Theatre

In 1917 Leoš Janáček travelled to Luhačovice, a spa town in the Zlín Region of Moravia, and it was here that he met for the first time Kamila Stösslová, the young married woman, almost 40 years his junior, who was to be his muse for the remaining years of his life.

Manon Lescaut opens Investec Opera Holland Park's 2019 season

At this end of this performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at Investec Opera Holland Park, the first question I wanted to ask director Karolina Sofulak was, why the 1960s?

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Cosmic traveling through his Klavierstücke, Kontakte and Stimmung

Stockhausen. Cosmic Prophet. Two sequential concerts. Music written for piano, percussion, sound diffusion and the voice. We are in the mysterious labyrinth of one of the defining composers of the last century. That at least ninety-minutes of one of these concerts proved to be an event of such magnitude is as much down to the astonishing music Stockhausen composed as it is to the peerless brilliance of the pianist who took us on the journey through the Klavierstücke. Put another way, in more than thirty years of hearing some of the greatest artists for this instrument - Pollini, Sokolov, Zimerman, Richter - this was a feat that has almost no parallels.

Don Giovanni at Garsington Opera

A violent splash of black paint triggers the D minor chord which initiates the Overture. The subsequent A major dominant is a startling slash of red. There follows much artistic swishing and swirling by Don Giovanni-cum-Jackson Pollock. The down-at-heel artist’s assistant, Leporello, assists his Master, gleefully spraying carmine oil paint from a paint-gun. A ‘lady in red’ joins in, graffiti-ing ‘WOMAN’ across the canvas. The Master and the Woman slip through a crimson-black aperture; the frame wobbles.

A brilliant The Bartered Bride to open Garsington's 2019 30th anniversary season

Is it love or money that brings one happiness? The village mayor and marriage broker, Kecal, has passionate faith in the banknotes, while the young beloveds, Mařenka and Jeník, put their own money on true love.

A reverent Gluck double bill by Classical Opera

In staging this Gluck double bill for Classical Opera, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, director John Wilkie took a reverent approach to classical allegory.

Lise Davidsen sings Wagner and Strauss

Superlatives to describe Lise Davidsen’s voice have been piling up since she won Placido Domingo’s 2015 Operalia competition, blowing everyone away. She has been called “a voice in a million” and “the new Kirsten Flagstad.”

Nicky Spence and Julius Drake record The Diary of One Who Disappeared

From Hyperion comes a particularly fine account of Leoš Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Handsome-voiced Nicky Spence is the young peasant who loses his head over an alluring gypsy and is never seen again.

Time Stands Still: L'Arpeggiata at Wigmore Hall

Christina Pluhar would presumably irritate the Brexit Party: she delights in crossing borders and boundaries. Mediterraneo, the programme that she recorded and performed with L’Arpeggiata in 2013, journeyed through the ‘olive frontier’ - Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Spain, southern Italy - mixing the sultry folk melodies of Greece, Spain and Italy with the formal repetitions of Baroque instrumental structures, and added a dash of the shady timbres and rhythmic litheness of jazz.

Puccini’s Tosca at The Royal Opera House

Sitting through Tosca - and how we see and hear it these days - does sometimes make one feel one hasn’t been to the opera but to a boxing match. Joseph Kerman’s lurid, inspired or plain wrong-headed description of this opera as ‘a shabby little shocker’ was at least half right in this tenth revival of Jonathan Kent’s production.

A life-affirming Vixen at the Royal Academy of Music

‘It will be a dream, a fairy tale that will warm your heart’: so promised a preview article in Moravské noviny designed to whet the appetite of the Brno public before the first performance of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen at the town’s Na hradbách Theatre on 6th November 1924.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

21 May 2019

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

La damnation de Faust: Glyndebourne Festival 2019

A review by Claire Seymour



Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

The work is a notoriously fragmentary hybrid, as quixotic as its eponymous ‘protagonist’, in which the unstable relationship between the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’, between the ‘tangible’ and the ‘idealised’, is both the ‘perfect’ embodiment of Berlioz’s ‘meaning’ and irreconcilably opposed to coherent theatrical presentation.

That doesn’t stop people trying. And, any director who tries has fathom how to deal with the work’s innumerable gaps, inconsistencies, multiplicities and conflicts - in the music and in the drama, of style and of mode.

In the music there are symphonic narratives; oratorio-like choruses which comment on events in the past; set-piece marches, dances and songs, some diegtic; operatic recitative and quasi-aria. Sometimes the music takes us into a character’s consciousness and invites us to experience their feelings, as in Faust’s invocations in which the music presents his response to his immediate world, thus communicating his inner life. At other times, such musical empathy is denied us, such as at the start of the work when Faust tells us he can here choruses: ‘All hearts throb to their victory song.’ We do not hear such songs, and we remain alienated from his experience. Then, the music sometimes roots the action in reality: we hear students singing in the streets, military tattoos and fanfares.

The drama lacks tension. Characters sometimes address each other but they do not ‘converse’. Are their relationships real or allegorical? There are flesh-and-blood soldiers and students alongside flying demons and hallucinatory visions. Situations are often unspecified and discontinuous. For example, waiting in vain for Faust’s arrival, Marguerite sings the romance ‘D’amour l’ardente flame’: she could be anywhere, and the moment could be placed either before or after what we have just seen and heard. The action resumes subsequently, with Faust in the countryside. There is no clear chronology or causal relationship.

Ultimately there is no unity; and this is Berlioz’s intent. The real and the imagined meet on the stage and in the score. So, if one stages the work, what should the theatrical stage ‘represent’? An identifiable time and place? Or, a magical ‘anywhere’? Specificity destroys illusion; dream-like passages destabilise reality. Clearly a different, new kind of logic must prevail.

In this new staging at Glyndebourne, Richard Jones gives us his own brand of ‘logic’ but ‘coherence’ eludes him. Before we hear a note of music, dancing demons in lurid body suits and horned masks limber up, as if for a sporting contest; then, a chorus of fiends takes its place in the stalls perched on three sides above the black box set through the cracks of which lurid lights glow. These are, apparently, the students who will observe Méphistophélès’ masterclass in malevolence - though they might as well be spectators at a gladiatorial combat. Or an audience at the theatre, an effect enhanced when Méphistophélès turns to address us: “my devils”. Aloft, they resemble the chorus in an oratorio, commenting on the action; when they descend, they become participants in the drama, effecting ‘now-you-see-me now-you-don’t’ changes of costume which further makes the audience complicit in the deception of Faust.

963 Faust.jpg Marguerite (Julie Boulianne), Méphistophélès (Christopher Purves) and Faust (Allan Clayton). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

So far so good: the work’s hybridity is reflected in this conceit. And, if the work is to succeed on the stage it should surely do so on its own terms. But, immediately Jones starts meddling. The entry of a Méphistophélès - a Paganini-like figure, swathed in a black, embroidered trench coast, with lanky red hair and clutching a battered violin case - marks the first of Jones’s ‘amendments’: he has added spoken text, written by Agathe Mélinand and based upon Goethe but with, in Jones’s words, “what’s germane to Berlioz”. Presumably such text is designed to ‘fill in’ the gaps in the narrative but it simply unbalances the ‘theatre v. oratorio’ relationship still further - and it didn’t help that Christopher Purves’ weary opening lines had a few unintended hiatuses.

In a programme booklet interview, Jones also purports to have been influenced by cinema, describing the beginning of his Faust as “like Rosemary’s Baby, in the scene where they all meet in that spooky building on the Upper West Side … [which] looks Satanic”. Similarly, Choreographer and Associate Director Sarah Fahie alludes to “a Blue Angel version” of the Faust legend: Joseph von Sternberg’s 1903 film starring Marlene Dietrich. “Faust was the professor in The Blue Angle and the whole sequence by the Elbe was the club in the film ...” One might agree that Berlioz’s Faust would lend itself to cinematic presentation; one recalls the much-admired 2009 staging at the Met by Québec playwright, director and actor Robert Lepage, whose fusion of sound and image was summed by the appropriately allusive term ‘techno-alchemy’.

But, Jones and his designer Hyemi Shin rely on more mundane means, sliding kitchen tables, blackboards, doors, trees and other props on and off the stage to suggest the different locales visited or remembered by Faust, or dropping them from above: the cottage where Marguerite lives with her mother descends from the flies, as do the three lampposts that form a backdrop for the aforementioned ‘D’amour l’ardente flame’.

Allan Clayton Faust.jpg Faust (Allan Clayton). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

There are plentiful recurring visual symbols: a portrait of the King of Thule, into whom Faust morphs at the close, sporting a scruffy white ti-shirt that spouts blood; a photograph of Marguerite, visible in the military students’ desks as they slam the lids up and down, disrupting the hapless Faust’s lessons on Romantic poetry, and posted on the front page of the newspapers held up by the chorus in the balcony, proclaiming her a Murderess. Jones deliberately bleaches such imagery of any Romantic idealism or lushness: it’s all broken and bereft, ugly and passionless. Even during their ‘love-making’, Faust and Marguerite have to be directed by the demons to slap a buttock, clutch a breast, thrust a hip. Marguerite’s mother shuffles back and forth in pink slippers and a stupor, drugged by the daughter who holds a tankard to her lips and roughly pours poison down her tilted neck.

Berlioz’s Faust is not Goethe’s over-reaching idealist who longs for the knowledge which is truth; instead, he is a man consumed by boredom, a man whose response to music - such as the Easter hymn which draws him back from the suicidal brink - is the sole thing that keeps alive transcendent desires which, however, remain unfulfilled. Scholar Daniel Albright has described this ‘anti-Goethean’ Faust, as a sort of ‘dead frog seeking Prof. Galvani for an electric charge’, and Allan Clayton seemed to embody such a figure at the start: listless, apathetic, heedless of the future. Though introspective, he was pulled from his inward gazing by external objectivities. This is a big sing and Clayton mounted a valiant essay, singing with earnestness and dramatic nuance; but he doesn’t have the high notes for the role, and this further diminished Faust’s already fragile heroic dimension.

The role of Marguerite is not enormously interesting for a singer: essentially passive, Marguerite has to be both sublime and real. While Julie Boulianne conveyed her innocence, it was a purity of a rather vacant kind. And, a reticent one: perhaps intended to infer delicacy and sweetness of character, the effect was disengaging, particularly as Boulianne’s enunciation was so poor. She grew in stature, strength and warmth in the post-dinner-interval Part IV, however.

Purves sang with a lovely seductive colour and nobility of line - not all that apt for the dark fiend, but pleasing to the ear, nonetheless. And, this Méphistophélès was a winner. Marguerite’s apotheosis was presented as a self-deluding indulgence of the disorientated Faust’s imagination; as Méphistophélès nonchalantly conducted ‘his’ choir of angels, it was plain who was calling the shots. As Brander, Ashley Riches dangled a rat before the terrified Marguerite with wicked glee and sang with assurance.

Conductor Robin Ticciati’s approach was perplexing. Carefully, oh so carefully, he gently teased out the nuances but so delicately, making us strain to hear the details, that we barely sensed the desire that the music communicates. The ‘big’ moments sometimes made their mark, but given the restrained, rarified tenor of the whole, the effect was one of discontinuity and disruption, adding to the incoherence of Jones’s conception.

Purves and devils.jpg Méphistophélès (Christopher Purves) and Dancers. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

But, then, any semblance of theatrical or structural coherence was unfortunately destroyed by Jones’s final coup de théâtre. With the curtain re-raised and Méphistophélès apparently preparing to take his applause, we were halted in our tracks by the fiend. Just when I’d been reflecting that it was a pity that the dancers - who had largely just shimmied across the stage pushing props and set - had had so little to do, Méphistophélès demanded that, after the ‘entertainment’ he had provided, his band of devils should reciprocate. So, now came the Minuet of the will-o’-the-Wisps (which is itself a musical quotation from Méphistophélès’ serenade): a wild dance of Dionysian ascendancy. Berlioz ensures that Faust’s ideal, though unfulfilled, is kept alive at the close by the transfiguration of Marguerite: here, Jones stamped on such an ideal with hob-nailed boots and cruelly confirmed that it was as dead and buried as the dancing demon’s leaps were high and free.

Where does that leave the audience? How are we, like Faust, to be lifted from despair? To what are we to aspire? Jones’s vision was not simply bleak: just as Berlioz’s Faust is worn down by “mon ennui sans fin”, so, by the end of Jones’s production, was I.

Claire Seymour

Faust - Allan Clayton, Méphistophélès - Christopher Purves, Brander - Ashley Riches, Marguerite - Julie Boulianne; Director - Richard Jones, Conductor - Robin Ticciati, Associate Director/Movement Director - Sarah Fahie, Set Designer - Hyemi Shin, Costume Designer - Nicky Gillibrand, Lighting Designer - Andreas Fuchs, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, Glyndebourne Youth Opera Trinity Boys Choir, Dancers and Children.

Glyndebourne Festival; Saturday 18th May 2019.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):