The Damnation of Faust, Opera by Hector Berlioz
When it was written, The Damnation of Faust defied description. Its composer, Hector Berlioz, first called it an “opéra de concert”, then a “légende dramatique”, a term he made up himself; he was unable to find another suitable category that his creation would neatly fit into.
The truth is that Berlioz, despite The Damnation of Faust having a libretto, never expected it to be acted out as a musical drama. Rather, his aim was to create extraordinary music inspired by the seemingly unstageable work it was based on, Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Faust.
Although The Damnation of Faust was first presented as an opera in the 1860s, full dramatic performances remained rare until recent times. Fortunately for today’s operagoers, the technical limitations of nineteenth-century theatres are easily overcome by their twenty-first century counterparts. Nonetheless, The Damnation of Faust, in particular the “Ride to the Abyss” at its conclusion, remains a challenging work to produce.
Faust, an elderly scholar bored with his studies, is tempted by Méphistophélès, an incarnation of the devil, to pursue a life of pleasure. With Méphistophélès’ connivance, Faust meets and falls in love with Marguerite, but her mother disapproves of their relationship. Whether by accident or design, Marguerite murders her mother and is thrown into jail; the only way Faust can save her is to sell his soul.
When the work was premiered under its original title, La damnation de Faust, on 6 December 1846 at Paris’ Opéra-Comique, the half-empty theatre was left bewildered. Berlioz’s astonishing grasp of instrumentation produced sounds that had never been heard before. His contemporaries hailed him as a genius, but his audience, encountering The Damnation of Faust for the first time, did not have any reassuring points of reference on which to base their reaction. A couple of poorly received performances followed by a cancellation left Berlioz counting the cost of a work that initially failed to attract any plaudits.
It is often the fate of composers who are ahead of their time to have to suffer uninformed criticism. In the case of The Damnation of Faust, it helps that directors are now better equipped to turn what is written on the page into live performance. Notable productions this century include Terry Gilliam’s for the English National Opera in 2011 and, four years later, Alvis Hermanis’ at the Opéra Bastille.
Now it’s the turn of the Rome Opera House’s Teatro Costanzi to present this astounding work of musical theatre. Each production adds its own twist to the story, but what remains a constant is Berlioz’s marvellous melodies and his ability to exploit the dynamics of the orchestra to the full.