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Von Goethe's famous story of Faust has been retold in several versions. Hector Berlioz's dramatic musical version - which he insisted is NOT an opera - is vividly brought to life here. This production was staged at the Salzburg Festival in 1998 and conductor, designers, director and cast all deserve only the highest accolades. Puritans (as in the case of Dvorak's Rusalka starring Reneé Fleming) might object to the 'modernity' of the staging. However, it is sheer brilliance and underlines the context, subtext and substance of the libretto and score in every aspect. Never has hell looked so magnificent and enticing, yet repulsive. And heaven, added like an unwanted coda, brings tears to the eyes. Vesselina Kasarova as Margarethe (although her acting borders on hamming) conveys all the nuance of the character both in voice and gesture. She is truly great. So is Paul Groves as Faust. The scene where he gets intoxicated on everything Méphistophélès (a stupendous Willard White) promises, as symbolised by Faust smoking an opium pipe, is unforgettable. Many a Hollwood actor would (SHOULD!) envy him the dreamlike, sleepy look in the eyes - proof that honesty is always reflected in the mirrors of the soul. To give away anything about the decor, costumes and direction would be to spoil any viewer's joy of discovery. The chorus, including a boys' choir, does not display the usual amateurish acting of opera choruses. Here they are a coherent whole in a stylised, stylish portrayal of mankind in general. Some of the scenes (let alone the singing and the superb accompaniment by the orchestra as well as the orchestral interludes) simply take one's breath away. This is available on DVD (ArtHauS label) and should be included in any serious music and art film lover's collection. Berlioz wrote some of the world's greatest music for this Faust.
La Damnation De Faust is an opera that always did draw me in. Perhaps I
do prefer Les Troyens as a Berlioz opera, but great sequences(like the
sequence in hell), a strong story and superb music really make the
opera a more than worthwhile experience. This production is not one
that everybody is going to be enthralled with, the Hungarian March
sounds underpowered and the action on stage is similarly underwhelming,
more inspired choreography was needed I feel and the production is a
little heavy on the symbolism which can detract from the story and make
the characters more like symbols themselves than real people. While the
video directing is generally fine, some of the close-ups of the three
perspiring in all honesty is not a pleasant sight.
That said, I did like the expressionistic sets, especially the one for the scene in Hell, and the costumes apart from the baker-like outfits for the chorus are effective. The video projections look splendid and give scenes like the Ride to the Abyss/Hell thrilling to watch on stage. I also liked in this scene that we see real horses. The orchestral playing is superb, the loud moments are rousing and the softer, more delicate moments have pathos. The conducting is very efficient, with few if any of the tempos questionable. The chorus, for what they lack in presence, make up for it by excellent singing. The three principals are great. Paul Groves is dashing as Faust with an appealing dream-like quality in his eyes, and his voice meets the lyric and dramatic demands of the role perfectly. Vessalina Kasarova is sometimes hampered by the giant cylinder that she is made to work with, but she sings with soaring high notes and mezzo notes that positively purr, and overall as Margherite she is very touching. Best of all is Willard White, true he is the opposite to what the libretto suggests, but what does it matter when he sings so resonantly and with such an imposing, quite demonic presence?
Overall, has a lot of good things but it is not going to be a production that is going to have people universally loving or hating it. 7.5/10 Bethany Cox
A few weeks back, I caught the later 3/4 of the Met's presentation of
La Damnation de Faust on Public TV and I found myself drawn in, not
just by the music (and I do enjoy classical very much) but by a story
that seemed to be so much more than the more usual 'love gone wrong
song' so many operas seem to be. But I didn't really know why; I just
knew I needed to see, listen and plainly know more.
I went through the library catalog and found the CD, but the only way to get a DVD was via Inter Library Loan and being that this non-opera isn't as well known or popular as all those ones even people who have never seen opera know of (and hum an aria from), I wasn't sure if it would be a problem. Of course, it wasn't and within a couple weeks, a university library in a nearby town shared this version (I've also got another version with Solti, Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra performing the same piece in its other, non-operatic, concert format to watch next week - also ILL - our tax dollars at work). Unfortunately, these are the only two versions I've found on DVD at present.
And so, by default, this filmed version from the Salzburg Festival 1999 may be the definitive version for many years to come (the Met hasn't released their version on DVD as far as I could tell), but don't let that scare you away. As a relatively simple work regarding the staging, it's amazing how much there is to this piece. It even seems pretty modern for a work completed before 1850 and it's not just the costumes or set design, all simple, elegant though now some costuming might feel a bit trite. I can't promise it will be for anyone, especially you, kind reader, but then again, I almost did not tune in to the Met broadcast since it was "only opera." That would have been a major mistake.
Echoing another review, I too was brought to tears by the shear beauty of this opera. I never imagined that I could connect with an opera and yet, as the final chorus was sung, tears streamed down my cheeks. I don't know why. Maybe, just maybe, the totality of this work reached a part of my soul I didn't know was there. And frankly, that is why opera is opera.
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