This film presentation of the Paris Opera’s very new production of La Damnation de Faust, composed by Hector Berlioz, is a knock-out. It was filmed live at the Opera Bastille, Paris on 17 Dec 2015 and if you are interested in opera, this is a must-see event.
Its success is not due to its stellar cast featuring Jonas Kauffman and Bryn Terfel – they help of course – and neither is it due to the superb music of Berlioz nor the masterful musicianship of the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris conducted by the inspired Philippe Jordan, rather it is due to the inspired design and direction of Latvian actor, dramatist dirtector and set designer Alvis Hermanis.
First performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in December 1846, La Damnation de Faust is a work for four solo voices, full seven-part chorus, large children’s chorus and large orchestra. Hector Berlioz, possible the best orchestrator of his era, called it a “légende dramatique” (dramatic legend).
It is based on Goethe’s story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil in a vain effort to be shown a more vital way of living his otherwise uninspiring life. Hermanis shifts the setting from its mediavel source to the here and now. This reviewer generally dislikes attempts to update opera or plays because the end result often doesn’t really work. Hermanis’ update however does work, because he seeks out and focuses on the enduring themes of the story, and translates them into a setting that is sympathetic rather than one that is trite and shallow. Hermanis’ design is quite avant-garde – he moves the focus from just being on the text, music and singing, towards a multi-perspective of place, time, theme as well as performance.
The Biblical aspect of the story is no longer the linchpin. Rather, the Devil becomes a modern day antagonist in the form of a scientist who holds out hope to Faust by offering him and others the chance to advance humankind by …are you ready for this? …joining the Dutch space program known as the Mars One expedition, which has the goal of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars from 2020.
This sounds bizzare and plain silly, and might be reason why one audience member walked out after about fifteen minutes and never returned. It is possibly just as unlikely a setting as Gail Edward’s recent production of Salome for the State Opera of South Australia in which she set the action in a slaughter house, would you believe?! However, it works on every level, and it works very well. God is replaced by science, and the Devil has an alter ego in the form of eminent physicist Stephen Hawking. Think about it. Hawking’s theories (and those of others) do away with the need for a creator, and science becomes the new god. The introduction of the Hawking character becomes a pivotal aspect of the design, and it is pure genious.
Hermanis’ production features a lot of modern dance, and the choreography becomes a key focus during extended musical intermezzos. When the Devil coaxes Faust to dwell on his carnal desires, the dance opens a window into Faust’s imagination and we see lithe and scantily clad attractive bodies performing raw and erotic dance sequences. It is mesmerising but not totally consuming. Voyeurism doesn’t win over. All the time the singing of Jonas Kauffman as Faust and Bryn Terfel as the Devil, along with and the richly embroidered music of Berlioz, keeps you grounded in the story. The multiple perspectives all work together.
The opera itself is not often performed, because it is episodic in nature and difficult to stage, but Hermanis’ design solves this problem and gives a coherence and believability to the piece that appeals to a modern audience.
I haven’t said very much about the usual production elements, but suffice to say again that Kauffman and Terfel are at the height of their powers. Of course they sang well, but their acting was phenomenal, especially Terfel. Faust’s love interest was beautifully sung by Sophie Koch. The production is superbly filmed, and the multiple vantage points give the viewer a rare close-up and deep insight into the performance.
Faust has been sold a one-way ticket to Mars by Méphistophélès, and you should take the journey as well.
Reviewed by Kym Clayton
Rating out of 10: 10
La Damnation de Faust will screen again on 29, 30 & 31 January & 3 February 2016 as part of the Palace Opera & Ballet cinema season, presenting the Royal Opera House, La Scala and Opéra National de Paris – exclusive at the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.