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La damnation de Faust

Dramatic legend in four parts by Hector Berlioz Performed in French with German surtitles

Synopsis

Faust feels the world; he does not participate in it. His reference to the world is an aesthetic one. Mephisto forces him through mundane and transcendent realities, staged and essential catastrophes. Faust keeps out of everything. Mephisto acts in substitute of Faust and accelerates situations. This also includes love. When Faust, in order to rescue Margaret, hands himself over Mephisto completly as preconcerted in the contract – he looses all of control free of his own free will. Mephisto succeeds in the »Experiment Faust«. »Faust« and »Mephisto« stand for the two opposing sides guiding throughout the history of mankind on the two sides within every man. (Faust ressent le monde, il ne le vit pas. Son lien avec lui est un lien esthétique. Méphisto l’entraîne dans des réalités terrestres et transcendantes, dans des catastrophes mises en scène et réelles. Faust se tient à l’écart de tout. Méphisto agit à sa place et provoque des situations. Parmi elles : l’amour. Lorsque Faust fait preuve de morale pour sauver Marguerite, il se livre à Méphisto par contrat et continue de se laisser manœuvrer sans manifester la moindre volonté. L’expérience menée par Méphisto sur Faust est réussie. Chacun à sa manière, Méphisto et Faust symbolisent de par leur caractère les désastres qui frappent l’humanité au cours de son histoire.) In cultural terms, the Germans hold Goethe’s »Faust« to be a national shrine. Composers who select this material for an opera, regardless of their nationality, expose themselves from the start to comparisons with the universality of the Goethe work. The dimensions to the story bestow the sense of Faust seeking the answers to the riddle of existence and his chancing upon Margarethe forms the benchmark for the acceptance of a musical work.
The repute of the composer and with this, his composed oeuvre, whilst considered siren calls to opera-goers, do not suffice as a standard of assessment. Libretti and composers present themselves to the public and critics in a virtually eclectic antipodal balancing act. The one school holds that the musical expectations of the genre and the new originality of the interpretation must be in harmony, also with a »Faust« opera, whilst the other seeks to uphold the deep mentality interwoven through the poetic model. The congruence of secured knowledge and conventional form is sought in simultaneous correspondence with viewpoint and genre specifics. Who can ultimately objectively harmonise such barely definable criteria?
Before Berlioz, Louis Spohr set the material to music, after him Arrigo Boito, Ferruccio Busoni and especially Charles Gounod have enjoyed the most enduring success to date. Hanns Eisler was belittled as being far off the mark because even the libretto was criticised as reviling the Goethe inheritance. As Goethe explained to Eckermann: «With their profound thoughts and ideas, which they seek everywhere and project into everything, the Germans… make life harder for themselves than they should … they come to me and ask what sentiments I’ve tried to personify in my Faust. As if I would know …!»
What and who actually is Faust? Hector Berlioz, distinguished co-author of the libretto to his opera, portrays the reverse of seeking enlightenment and thus also errant humans. Removed from a life without depth, life has no value. That makes Faust inert, not capable of forming relationships, unredeemingly lonely. Even the immortal guilt-ridden soul of Goethe’s Faust rises to the heavens at the end. Here the principle of enlightenment reigns, that nothing transcends the pursuit of insight. Berlioz’s Faust takes a different path, straight to hell. But as such, it also seems the reality.
Berlioz had it difficult from the outset – interest in »The damnation of Faust« was meagre. Yet the grounds for success were quite conceivable. Fascinated by the French translation of Goethe’s work, he first wrote stage music and sent the score to Goethe who showed interest and passed the score on to Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter’s damning review stifled Goethe. Berlioz busied himself further with the material, taking almost twenty years on »The damnation of Faust«. Berlioz conducted the premiere performance in 1846 in the manner of a concert. The first staged performance did not happen until 1893 in Monte Carlo. Berlioz, who died in 1869, never conceived of this possibility. His »Faust« was not an opera. His »Dramatic Legend in Four Acts« is arranged into twenty scenes, the first parts corresponding to the formal structure of a number opera in order to ultimately rise to a more surreal level in which space and time disintegrate and reality melds into complex interwoven truths. The theatres of 1846 were not ready for such an approach.

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