Berlioz - La Damnation de Faust

ONP Bastille, Friday December 11 2015

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Director and sets: Alvis Hermanis. Costumes: Christine Neumeister. Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky. Video: Katrina Neiburga. Marguerite: Sophie Koch. Faust: Jonas Kaufmann. Méphistophélès: Bryn Terfel. Brander: Edwin Crossley-Mercer. Voix céleste: Sophie Claisse. Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine and Paris Opera Children's Chorus.

One of the reasons I started writing about everything I saw - productions and singers - was just to recall it, as I often found I couldn't. Alvis Hermanis's production (great name, Alvis: conjures up memories of stylish, sporty cars, many years ago) should, however, be easy to remember, as it features Stephen Hawking in his electrically-driven chair. It has also led to memorable, near-historic levels of booing, heckling and exchanged insults, even during the show, forcing Philippe Jordan to intervene from time to time to quieten people down. Someone who has been going to opera at least as long as I have told me it was the worst production he had ever seen.

Perhaps the problem is that many opera-goers aren't science-fiction fans. My neighbour, who reads practically nothing else, loved it. I don't read any at all, yet I thought that, though it has its flaws (my thought really was that it takes some very risky risks, coming perilously close to ridicule) it isn't that bad. On the contrary. Nor have I read anything by Stephen Hawking, though I understand he has very sound views on religion. The Daily Mail online, which I don't normally read either, usefully tells me:

"The physicist, who has decoded some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, said it is ‘essential’ for man to spread across the galaxy in case Earth is destroyed. He suggested that it was ‘almost certain’ that a disaster ‘such as nuclear war or global warming’ would obliterate the planet within a thousand years. ‘It is essential that we colonise space,’ he stressed. ‘I believe that we will eventually establish self-sustaining colonies on Mars and other bodies in the solar system, but not within the next 100 years.'"

So. At the outset, Hermanis wonders, in large projected letters, who Faust might be in the 21st century, and decides he would be a scientist. He then tells us, in more projected text, what The Daily Mail so usefully told me, and goes on to pretend that the time has come for a group of 200 international volunteers to set off for Mars, never to return. Up on the screens, we see their faces, nationalities and jobs.

From then on, Faust's journey is presented, if I understand the concept correctly, as man's quest, in the context of climate change, terrorist attacks, etc., to colonise other planets, with Hawking as Faust, meandering around the stage in his chair, doubled by Jonas Kaufmann*, in a dark corduroy jacket and glasses, as the same. Mephistophélès and his supporters are usually in white lab coats. When not in white coats, the chorus wear very ordinary modern clothes until the final scenes, when they climb into sky-blue space-suits with embroidered badges showing their different national flags. As Marguerite, the unfortunate Sophie Koch, who can be made to look glamorous, is got up in frumpish green dresses and flat shoes or bootees.

At the rear, a grid of large screens shows beautifully-produced videos illustrating the libretto: a field of poppies in the wind, for example, as Faust sings of his solitude or, during Kaufmann's magnificent "Nature immense", a volcano. However, some of the illustrations are too graphic for some of the audience - spermatozoa shooting home, for example, when Faust is in Marguerite's bedroom. The videos are, therefore, one major element; young dancers, mostly in white underwear, are another. Often shut up in glass cases (hence my remark about glass cases when reporting on the Bartok/Poulenc double-bill at the Palais Garnier) they play various parts, including the army during the famous march, gradually descending into convulsive gesticulation - the horror of war, I think (not to mention the horror of contemporary dance). During Brander's Song of the Rat, while the videos display laboratory rats, the dancers play them, imprisoned in their glass cages. Only during the Ballet of the Sylphs do the girls wear, more or less, tutus.

At the very end, the director takes his biggest risk. While the chorus prepare to set off for Mars, climbing, as I said, into space-suits, and rockets fire up, Hawking tumbles to the floor from his chair. Slowly, in an elaborate choreography involving the young dancers bearing him aloft and supporting him on their backs in a kind of apotheosis (glancing back, I thought, to the kind of mawkish Catholic Kitsch the 1840s would have been perfectly capable of dishing up), and falteringly he ends up, albeit unsteady, on his feet as Kaufmann slumps into the chair. I take no more interest in modern dance than I do in science-fiction, but all along, Hawking has been played, so it turns out, by one of Pina Bausch's favourite dancers. The End.

Now, on the night I was there, the audience had been noisily ill-behaved in the first part and even booed Jordan. Yet, however risky the ending, however close it may come to ridicule (actually descending into it, as far as a critic friend was concerned, in his e-mail to me after the opening night), there was not a single boo as the lights went out. To my amazement, the rude, noisy, grumbling couple in the row behind, who had booed at the end of part one, not only remained silent, but the husband even remarked: "Les cing dernières minutes" - i.e. Hawking's slow-motion apotheosis - "rachètent tout le reste." My neighbour, the sci-fi fan, had been genuinely moved and found the whole thing "magnifique." I'm not a fan of convulsive modern dance (far from it), but it wasn't convulsive all the way through. With climate change being discussed at COP 21 in Paris and people flocking to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and buy the merchandise for Christmas, the themes and their treatment didn't seem so outlandish to me, nor, since science was one of those themes, was I shocked by the scientific images. In fact, I found the modernization actually restored to the work the sense of magic and wonder that's so hard to conjure up in this materialistic age, where neither God nor the Devil impress us. I did note, as the critics complained, that there wasn't actually much direction to the acting, but Faust is a contemplative character, so it isn't shocking if he wanders thoughfully round the stage.

For the same reason, it wasn't abnormal that Kaufmann so often crooned in head voice, though I wished he'd done it less; and of course, his "Nature immense" was, as I said above, truly magnificent. My neighbour thought Sophie Koch was strained by the part, but I didn't notice it; I just wished the production hadn't made her look so miserable and drab. Terfel was the usual absolute bête de scène, affable and at ease. Perhaps, with his bright bass and Kaufmann's dark tenor, there was too little contrast between the two. Edwin Crossley-Mercer made a deluxe Brander.

The chorus wasn't as good as usual.  Nor was Jordan, whose approach to Berlioz was ponderous to the point of sounding Brucknerian. When you've heard Gardiner's Trojans on period instruments, that seemed a definite step backwards.

* The Métro was crowded at rush hour. A curly-haired chap apologised for stepping on my toe (he hadn't): Kaufmann on his way to Bastille.

Maestro Wenarto sings "D'amour l'ardente flamme".


  1. Thanks for this... it sounds like a good idea that didn't quite make it... Great cast though...

  2. your article makes me want to see it!


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