“La Damnation de Faust“ is less about the philosophical dimension of the material than about passion, conflicts, and of course the protagonist’s dramatic damnation. The magician of sound Hector Berlioz has created a suggestive, imaginary opera here, interpreted in our concert by Simon Rattle and two prominent American singers: Joyce DiDonato as Marguerite and Charles Castronovo as Faust. Ludovic Tézier will take part as Mephisto.
La Damnation de Faust
Hector Berlioz wrote a text of his own for La Damnation de Faust, one that in Shakespearean style focuses on the acting players’ passion and grotesque: “I didn’t commit to follow Goethe’s plan […].” In the work, which oscillates between being an opera and a choral symphony, Faust seems to be a Byronesque melancholiac for whom nothing remains but the damnation referred to in the title. Berlioz’s compositional fantasy was kindled not by Faust, but by Marguerite and by the genre scenes such as the student scene, which plays a large role musically. The score turns out to be a veritable treasure trove of characteristic instrumental colours, showing once again that Berlioz (who had completed his famous Grand Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes shortly before this) was a brilliant master of the art of instrumentation – for instance, where the often neglected bass register in the brass lend Méphistophélès’s sphere a creepy and sinister tone, or extremely delicate woodwind settings are provided for the ballet numbers.
There is no doubt that the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle will perform Berlioz’s magical tone colours brilliantly. Besides mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (Marguerite), who has made a name for herself with an “incomparable, divine voice” (The Times) and impeccable technique, and who debuted with the Philharmonic in 2012, tenor Charles Castronovo (Faust), who is blessed with splendid high notes, lyrical baritone Ludovic Tézier (Méphistophélès) and the Rundfunkchor Berlin will sing.
It was to his father, a doctor, that Berlioz owed his first acquaintance with music – playing the flute and guitar. He also owed his parent – a cancer sufferer – his knowledge of the pain-alleviating effects of opium. Obeying his father’s wishes, the young Hector embarked upon medical training. It was short-lived: his experiences as an intern at Paris’s Hospice de la Pitié only confirmed his aversion to “the fragments of limbs, the grinning heads and gaping skulls, the bloody quagmire underfoot” (Berlioz in his Mémoires). He decided for a musical career, only to face his pious mother’s laments and reprobation. Without the impetus of these recurring memories, however, he might never have composed the descents into hell in the Symphonie fantastique and Damnation of Faust. The anonymous “narrator” of the autobiographical symphony, intoxicated by opium, dreams of having murdered his eternally unapproachable beloved and of his own annihilation under the guillotine. In a Sabbath-night horror scenario, the Eternal Feminine returns as Eternal Demon, and the soul of the executed descends into hell to the shrill laughter of a witches’ round dance. The Faust of Damnation, too, ends up in the inferno, now driven by Mephistopheles. But the “légende dramatique” has an epilogue: the Seraphim sing a hosanna to the highest, and Marguerite (Gretchen), the transfigured murderess-penitent, ascends into heaven.
The French painter Eugène Delacroix was inspired in the 1820s to create dramatic visions of the antithetical pair Faust and Mephistopheles. Their lithographs were enthusiastically acquired in Germany, of all places, and caused Goethe to declare that Delacroix’s depictions of these scenes surpassed his own. In 1827, Gérard de Nerval, just turned 19, presented his French prose version of the first part of Goethe’s tragedy. When the poet in Weimar read Nerval’s version, he reportedly said to his amanuensis Johann Peter Eckermann: “I cannot read ‘Faust’ any more in German; but in this French translation everything again seems fresh, new and ingenious.” Hector Berlioz, only 24, also undertook this assignment. Delacroix’s lithographs (not otherwise accorded much approval in France) excited his imagination. He promptly succumbed to Goethe fever. In the same year, 1827, he also was infected by the Shakespeare fever then raging in Paris, but this had a different cause: Charles Kemble’s visiting company of English actors was performing Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.
Shakespeare and Goethe: Berlioz’s new kindred spirits. But even stronger than his attraction to the two poets was his captivation by the actress who played Juliet and Ophelia: Harriet Smithson, the company’s female star. The hopelessly infatuated young composer also found himself burning between three other fires, as an imaginary Romeo, Hamlet and Faust. But the celebrated Irish diva at first paid no notice to her feverish admirer and continued on the tour with Kemble’s troupe. (Later Berlioz and Smithson did indeed tie the knot, with Liszt as a witness to the marriage. Thereby ignited another, all-too-earthly inferno.) But before that, the inconsolable lover was plunged into a delirium of productivity and composed his Symphonie fantastique. Then he turned to Faust. “This marvellous book fascinated me from the first. I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in the street.” Nerval’s prose translation also contains several rhymed strophes in closed form that immediately suggested a musical setting. The first came about in 1829, Berlioz’s Huit Scènes de Faust: eight fragments (actually nine), each number in the printed score preceded by an epigraph in English from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet. Shakespeare, Goethe and Berlioz – “of one heart and of one soul” in the Eight Scenes.
Long stretches of the storyline in La Damnation de Faust – completed 16 years after the first scenes were conceived – cannot be understood as enacted “reality” but only as theatre to be perceived acoustically, as an incorporeal legerdemain with which Mephistopheles seeks to draws his victim Faust towards the abyss and into the inferno. Nerval’s translation remained the basis of this “legend” in four parts and epilogue. The composer fashioned a libretto to suit his purposes, collaborating with the writer Almire Gandonnière, whose adventurous biography could, in its own right, have served as the subject for one of Berlioz’s scores. “I sought neither to translate nor to imitate Goethe’s masterpiece,” Berlioz explained, “but simply to take my inspiration from it and extract the musical essence it contained.” Thus he had no dramaturgical scruples about setting the opening of his Faust on the Puszta in Hungary merely to be able to incorporate the Rákóczy March in his scenario. Similarly, Faust and Mephistopheles’s descent into hell with no return was the composer’s own invention. Faust has signed the devil’s pact “freely” – a condition upon which the Prince of Darkness insists. He sacrifices his salvation deliberately in order to rescue Marguerite from eternal damnation.
Berlioz considered La Damnation de Faust to be “one of the best things I have done”. But the cost of printing the vocal and orchestral parts alone, not to mention the fee for hiring the Opéra-Comique and the performers, brought him to the brink of ruin. On 6 December 1846 the composer presented a complete concert performance of his “dramatic legend”: a sequence of tableaux so unrealistic and phantasmagorical that Berlioz could hardly have considered realizing them by any means other than music – in any case, not stagecraft. But seven years had passed since the success he scored with Roméo et Juliette in 1839; meanwhile, even in Paris, other trends prevailed; the performances had to be given during daytime; “the weather was terrible”; and the singers were utilités whom one could hear on any evening at the Opéra-Comique and who were no more “fashionable” than the audiences who attended this theatre. “The result was that Faust was given twice before a half-empty house,” wrote Berlioz in his Mémoires. “The fashionable Paris audience, the audience which goes to concerts and is supposed to take an interest in music, stayed comfortably at home, as little concerned with my new work as if I had been the obscurest Conservatoire student. For all the number of people that came to those two performances, it might have been the most trifling opera in the company’s repertoire. Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference.”
La Damnation deFaust was never heard in Paris again during the composer’s lifetime. Liszt conducted the work in Weimar in 1852 as part of a week he dedicated to Berlioz’s music. The honouree himself, however, did not visit Weimar until the next year’s Berlioz Week – which, however, did not include Faust. In 1866 he went again to Vienna to direct a concert performance – the Singverein took the choral parts. The first staged production came as late as 1893, a quarter-century after the composer’s death, in the Salle Garnier of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, where the theatre’s director Raoul Gunsbourg made his own version of the work. That opened the curtains, but the true stage for Berlioz’s Faust was and is the imagination – first the composer’s, then the public’s.
Florian Boesch is much in demand as one of the leading Lieder performers on the concert stages of international music capitals (Wiener Konzertverein, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Wigmore Hall London, Konzerthaus Berlin, etc.) as well as at prestigious festivals such as the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Oxford Lieder Festival and the Styriarte Festival in Graz. With a historically and stylistically diverse concert repertoire, Florian Boesch is equally successful as a soloist with leading orchestras and in roles in the stage works of George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Alban Berg (Wozzeck). The baritone, who studied in Vienna under Robert Holl among others, has a regular artistic partnership with Nikolaus Harnoncourt which has included performances of works such as Haydnʼs Creation and The Seasons at the Salzburg Festival. He has also worked together with conductors including Ivor Bolton, Adam Fischer, Philippe Herreweghe, Sir Roger Norrington, Paul McCreesh and Franz Welser-Möst. Florian Boesch first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2011 as soloist in Beethoven’s C major Mass, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Charles Castronovo, who was born in New York and raised in California, sang in the chorus of Los Angeles Opera while still a student. He continued his training in the young singer programmes at San Francisco and the Metropolitan Opera where he made his debut as Beppe in I Pagliacci in 1999. Since then, he has performed at venues such as the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Opéra National in Paris, the Teatro Real in Madrid, the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the Vienna State Opera and at the festivals in Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence. The tenor has also returned on many occasions to the Met and to Los Angeles. His repertoire includes roles such as Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni), Tamino (Die Zauberflöte), Alfredo (La traviata), Rodolfo (La Bohème), Nemorino (Lʼelisir dʼamore), Gennaro (Lucrezia Borgia), Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Ruggero (La Rondine) and the title role in Gounodʼs Faust. Charles Castronovo can be heard this season at the Bavarian State Opera as Tamino, Nemorino and Don Ottavio; at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, he takes on the role of Ruggero in a production by Rollando Villazón. Charles Castronovo made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at this yearʼs Easter Festival in Baden-Baden, also in the title role of Berliozʼ La Damnation de Faust.
Joyce DiDonato, who was born in Kansas (USA), studied at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, after which she continued her training in young singer programmes at the opera houses in San Francisco, Houston and Santa Fe. Since then, her stellar career has taken her to, among others, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Londonʼs Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the State Opera houses in Munich and Vienna, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Liceu in Barcelona, and to renowned festival venues such as Salzburg, Edinburgh and the BBC Proms. Joyce DiDonatoʼs core repertoire includes roles by Handel and Mozart and Rossini bel canto roles (such as Elena in La donna del lago). She has also appeared as Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), the Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos), in the title role of The Cunning Little Vixen, and in contemporary stage works such as in Mark Adamoʼs Little Women, Tod Machoverʼs Resurrection and Jake Heggieʼs Dead Man Walking. The mezzo-soprano is equally sought after as a concert soloist and has worked with conductors such as Valery Gergiev, Alan Gilbert, James Levine, Sir Roger Norrington, and has appeared with orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Orchestre National de Paris and the Cleveland Orchestra. Joyce DiDonato, who received a Grammy Award in 2012 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Juilliard School in 2014, has also given lieder recitals at the Wigmore Hall in London and New Yorkʼs Carnegie Hall. In Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation concerts, the artist made her first appearance as a guest artist in a recital in 2012, accompanied by David Zobel.
Ludovic Tézier comes from Marseille and is currently one of the most sought-after singers in his field. He began his career as an ensemble member of the Lucerne Theatre before he was admitted to the Atelier Lyrique of the Opéra de Lyon. There he first sang Mozart roles (Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro and the title role in Don Giovanni) and bel canto roles such as Belcore in Lʼelisir dʼamore and Malatesta in Don Pasquale, followed by Marcello (La Bohème) and Ford (Falstaff) soon after. In 2005 he made his debut at the Vienna State Opera as Count Almaviva. Engagements followed at theatres such as the New York Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, La Scala Milan, Bavarian State Opera, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Toulouse, Marseille, Monte Carlo, Aix-en-Provence and at the Salzburg Festival. The baritone has enjoyed success as Renato (Un ballo in maschera), Germont (La traviata), Jeletzki, in the title role of Eugene Onegin, as Hamlet, Wolfram, Valentin, Don Carlo (La forza del destino), Enrico (Lucia di Lammermoor) and Escamillo (Carmen). Ludovic Tézier made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at this yearʼs Easter Festival in Baden-Baden.
The Rundfunkchor Berlin is a sought-after partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. In around 50 concerts per year the chorus displays an exceptional breadth of repertoire and stylistic versatility. With it’s experimental series, “Broadening the Scope of Choral Music”, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: In 2012 an interactive scenic version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. Founded in 1925 and shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe and Robin Gritton, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been directed since 2001 by Simon Halsey. Their work together is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, such as the annual Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people. The Rundfunkchor last appeared mid-March with the Berliner Philharmoniker, in works by Debussy and Duruflé conducted by Donald Runnicles.