The Damnation of Faust review – seductive, beguiling and sinister

Glyndebourne, Lewes
The new Glyndebourne season opens with a striking, albeit nihilistic and anti-Romantic staging by Richard Jones of Berlioz’s dramatic legend

Glyndebourne opens its season and marks the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death with a new production of The Damnation of Faust, directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Robin Ticciati.

Like many of Berlioz’s major scores, his version of Goethe’s play transcends the formal boundaries of genre, and his “dramatic legend” – part opera, part oratorio – was originally intended to be performed in concert. Bringing the piece on to the stage consequently presents its own series of challenges, and Jones’s solution to the work’s disparities is striking, if by no means ideally successful.

Firstly, he has added a spoken text, derived from Goethe, written by Agathe Mélinand, delivered by Christopher Purves’s Mephistopheles either at the start of scenes or over quieter orchestral passages, ostensibly to clarify the narrative and align it with Jones’s concept. Secondly, he and Ticciati have relocated the Menuet des Follets to the end, where it now forms a triumphal dance for Mephistopheles’ crew after Marguerite’s apotheosis. And finally, the score’s hybrid nature is reflected in the staging itself, which takes place in a lecture theatre, where the chorus alternately gaze down from upper tiers on the drama played out below, and descend to stage level to participate in it.

Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles and Allan Clayton as Faust.
Christopher Purves as Mephistopheles and Allan Clayton as Faust. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith/Glyndebourne Productions Ltd

Jones’s interpretation, however, is hampered by uncertainties of tone since what he gives us is an inherently anti-Romantic vision of a deeply Romantic work. Allan Clayton’s Faust is a lonely bookworm with the unlikely job of teaching poetry at a military academy – where the cadets treat him with contempt – and his aspirations throughout are seen as either too naive or too fragile to hold up to reality. Julie Boulianne’s Marguerite is the put-upon barmaid at Auerbach’s bierkeller, dreaming of a life beyond everyday drudgery. The work can be viewed as a commentary on the seductive, demoniac power of music itself, and Purves’s sinister, sardonic Mephistopheles looks like Paganini, complete with violin case, while his sylphs have become the druggy inhabitants of a brothel.

Gradually, however, we realise that hell is the here and now, and that both damnation and paradise are redundant fictions. The additional texts allow Purves to identify the audience as “créatures d’enfer”, while Marguerite’s ascent to heaven is a figment of Faust’s imagination, for which Mephistopheles supplies the soundtrack by conducting his own devilish choir. Some of it is unnerving, some of it irritating, but the nihilism and cynicism of Jones’s vision all too frequently grate against the beauty, awe and wonder generated by the score.

The chorus gaze down on the action.
The chorus gaze down on the action. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith/Glyndebourne Productions Ltd

Ticciati, an exemplary Berliozian, conducts with great beauty and a keen sense of dramatic pace. The London Philharmonic play with refined sensuousness of detail, while the Glyndebourne Chorus, augmented for the occasion, sound terrific throughout. Clayton sings with admirable ease and freshness of voice. His fervour in Nature Immense is beguiling, even though Jones has reduced the grandeur of the nature to a few bedraggled pine trees in the rain. Purves, slightly gritty in tone, is all malign irony and caustic wit. A superb actor, he speaks the interpolated text with great poetic eloquence and irony. The real revelation, though, is Boulianne, a distinguished mezzo with a velvety tone and a wonderful way with words. D’Amour l’Ardente Flamme, ravishingly done, is in many ways the evening’s high point. Musically, it is extremely fine, though Jones’s staging won’t be to everyone’s taste.

• At Glyndebourne, Lewes, until 10 July.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Vanessa review – Barber's opera finds its time with intelligent, gripping staging
Keith Warner’s new production features a compelling performance by Emma Bell at its centre, with the London Philharmonic under Jakub Hrůša also very impressive

Tim Ashley

06, Aug, 2018 @12:14 PM

Article image
Wonder breaks the silence: pop, rock and classical music for 2021
Cardi B pushes into Beyoncé’s turf and Sleaford Mods tot up the cost of Covid, while UK orchestras head back to the concert hall – our critics look ahead to big music moments

Alexis Petridis and Andrew Clements

28, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Madama Butterfly/Der Rosenkavalier review – Glyndebourne openers perplex, provoke and charm
Annilese Miskimmon’s stripped-back Puccini update and an admirable but uneven Strauss revival opened this year’s summer festival

Tim Ashley

21, May, 2018 @11:36 AM

Article image
The Marriage of Figaro review – beguiling cast bring clarity to the confusion
English Touring Opera’s production is beautifully sung and manages to bring out the tenderness within the comedy

Tim Ashley

02, Mar, 2018 @5:19 PM

Article image
Faust review, Royal Opera House – Schrott and Fabiano are devilishly good together
Singing Marguerite with only a few hours notice, Mandy Fredrich made a memorable house debut in this taut revival

Tim Ashley

12, Apr, 2019 @4:44 PM

Article image
The week in classical: Donnerstag aus Licht; La Damnation de Faust; By Voice Alone – review
Stockhausen’s five-hour opera stuns with a cosmic cornucopia, while Berlioz is underdone at Glyndebourne

Fiona Maddocks

25, May, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Die Zauberflöte review – a visual feast of eccentricity
This magical, witty, irreverent production updates the action and politics to 1900s Vienna but still strikes some wrong notes

Erica Jeal

19, Jul, 2019 @11:37 AM

Article image
The Damnation of Faust - review

It seems perverse to invite Terry Gilliam to cut his teeth as an opera director on a work that isn't really an opera. But Berlioz's recasting of the Faust legend allows a maverick creativity like Gilliam's the freedom to flourish, refracting the story through German history and culture from the 19th century to the Third Reich, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

06, May, 2011 @11:30 PM

Article image
Cendrillon review – Cinderella entrances her gender-fluid Prince
Fiona Shaw stages Massenet’s flawed yet astonishingly beautiful opera as a surreal, modern-dress phantasmagoria

Tim Ashley

15, Oct, 2018 @4:02 PM

Article image
Ariadne ducks the bombs at the Glyndebourne festival

This year's Glyndebourne opener Ariadne auf Naxos is getting a radical relocation, to a Blitz-time hospital. Director Katharina Thoma tells Tom Service how she drew on the history of the Sussex mansion

Tom Service

15, May, 2013 @6:00 PM