The Guardian, 9 December 2015
Martin Kettle
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust, Paris, Opera Bastille, 8. Dezember 2015
La Damnation de Faust review – Hawking walks and snails mate in mawkish opera
Alvis Hermanis’s self-absorbed production gets it all wrong, but you can’t fault the singing in this star-studded version of Berlioz’s tricky work

Even Berlioz didn’t know how to categorise La Damnation de Faust. On the title page he erased his original designation, Opéra de Concert, in favour of the more romantically inscrutable Légende, later Légende Dramatique. To put this episodic and far from inherently theatrical work on the stage is therefore not easy, although both Harry Kupfer and Terry Gilliam have pulled it off in recent decades in London.

In the Paris Opera’s new all-star production of his “dramatic legend”, director and set designer Alvis Hermanis makes an ambitious but misjudged effort to reimagine Faust’s intellectual daring in the age of Stephen Hawking and the exploration of Mars. The scientist himself, played by Pina Bausch stalwart Dominique Mercy, is a silent presence on stage throughout. The apotheosis of Marguerite in the closing scene even becomes, in a scene of mawkish bad taste, the apotheosis of Hawking, who stands unsupported as the curtain falls and the booing begins. When a Mars rover crosses the stage, I half expected Matt Damon to make a cameo appearance too.

But the headstrong self-absorption of the production comes close to asphyxiating Berlioz’s episodic work. When an audience collapses in hoots of derision as mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch’s Marguerite sings the exquisite D’Amour l’Ardente Flamme to a video backdrop of snails mating, it’s a sure sign that the production is a turkey rather than that the bourgeoisie has been satisfyingly outraged.

Musically, on the other hand, this is as impressive a Faust as Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, Bryn Terfel as Mephistopheles and Koch as Marguerite would lead one to expect. Kaufmann’s bespectacled university lecturer Faust is a restrained but always intelligently musical vocal presence for much of the first part of the opera, but his invocation to nature in the second part is a consummate moment of great singing, the sort of things one hears rarely in a lifetime, and well worth the journey to Paris on its own (Kaufmann will be replaced by Bryan Hymel in some later performances – a super-sub indeed).

Terfel brings much needed vigour and energy to every diabolical contribution, and his triumphant cry of “Je suis vainqueur” was magnificent. Koch is always a distinguished presence, though there is little attempt at characterisation, and Edwin Crossley-Mercer sings Brander’s song of the rat with panache. The excellent Philippe Jordan conducts with an impeccably idiomatic feel for Berlioz that unfortunately eludes a lot of what is happening on the stage.

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