Tuesday, May 27, 2014

When is an opera not an opera?

Answer: when it was never intended to be.

The Faust legend has provided the material for a good number of theatrical pieces, the most successful operatic ones being, firstly, Spohr’s 1816/1851 Singspiel-opera, and then, of course, Gounod’s celebrated work. But that didn’t stop other composers having their go at the subject, from Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethe’s Faust (1853) to Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’ La Damnation de Faust (1846), written in something like cantata form, for four soloists and choir.
After a sticky start, the piece found regular performances, especially in England, where in the 1890s, operatic manager T H Friend got his hands on it, ‘adapted’ it for the stage, and produced and directed the result ‘for the first time on any stage’, with Barton McGuckin and Zelie de Lussan, at Liverpool. It actually wasn’t the first time, Monaco had got there first the previous year: two people had seemingly had the same idea. To turn La Damnation, a quarter of a century after its composer’s death, into something other than what it had been written to be. Was it a good idea? I went to the Deutsche Oper last night to have my mind made up for me.

Well, it didn’t take me long. I don’t think it was a good idea. The piece is not written and composed in a theatrical style, and no amount of skilled direction can make it – in spite of its subject – ‘dramatic’. It is exactly what it was written to be: a series of solos, choral pieces and interludes which suit perfectly the cantata or secular oratorio format. Berlioz did know what he was about!

However, given the inherent failings of the piece as a stage work, last night’s production did all it could to make it work. It provided some delightful visuals to go with the various movements. The first one actually came before the curtain: the overflowing orchestra pit featured four – yes four (it’s only scored for two) – harps, perched up above the glittering brass section, and serried rows of woodwind … a great sight!  Sadly, the harps were little used, but they had their moment in the apotheosis. The woodwind had an even greater moment.

I always shudder a touch when I see a choreographer billed as a director. Its usually signals a too-dancy production. Well, that was just what was needed here, and Christian Spuck provided it in silver spades, healthily aided by a really atmospheric and highly practical set. In fact, the set (designer: Emma Ryott) was one of my favourite things of the night … set, costumes and direction combined to provide a sort of masque-like accompaniment to the musical sections. Something to watch and entertain while listening to the movements of the cantata.
The fair scene, with its thronging soldiers, was a particular delight to the eye. Faust’s descent into Hell was not: it looked as if the producer had run out of money towards the end. They should have borrowed the barque from Phantom of the Opéra.

Of the four soloists, Matthew Potenzani as Faust was the standout. It helps that he’s got way the best part. He sang in the best French style .. I would have picked him as French ... lyrical and clear, lilting or dramatic. Will I ever again have a season like this one for super tenors?

Clémentine Margaine was the capable mezzo Marguerite (well, Spohr had a baritone Faust) who doesn’t even show up till half time. When she does, she has a couple of good duets: one big sing with Faust, and one with a magnificent cor anglais, played here by Iveta Hylasova Bachmannova which stole the show. ‘Hirt am Felsen’ time. Great concert piece.
Mephistopheles’ role is not very exciting, and his stand-up solo ‘Song of the Flea’ not really stand-out. Samuel Youn played him like a naughty Puck, rather than the conventional Devil, which was rather fun.
Tobias Kehrer, last week’s splendid Sarastro, sang Brander’s ’Song of the Rat’ in his big basso voice, as the only other ‘character’ of the piece.

The oratorical choruses make up a significant part of the score, and they were splendidly sung: the women’s chorale of the finale was, for me, the best number of the night. And not just because of the harps!

So production was fine, staging was fine, singing was pretty fine to very fine, orchestra (cond: Runnicles) was bulgingly fine as were the skilfully-marshalled choruses … but I came to the end of the evening (two hours ten, with NO INTERVAL) not really satisfied. In fact, a bit bored. The piece just doesn’t stand up as a theatrical whole. And would it be sacrilegious to say that the score doesn’t either?

I’m glad to have seen it, heard it (especially the cor anglais) but -- for all the trimmings -- I don’t think I’d repeat the experience.

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