Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust (1846)

Dramatic Legend in four parts. Running Time 2 hours 6 minutes.

This isn’t exactly an opera, Berlioz wanted it to be one, but it has always been very difficult to stage and has usually ended up being performed in concert form. The most interesting thing about this opera (other than the beautiful vocal music for Faust) is that Marguerite is a mezzo-soprano.

PLOT: Same as other Faust operas. Faust makes a pact with Mephistofeles, they go around partying with supernatural beings and Faust seduces a girl named Marguerite. In the end he is damned and she is saved (re every other Faust opera ever written).

LOOK OUT FOR:

PART I: An open field in Hungary.

0: The opening scene *: Faust comes upon the end of winter and the blossoming of spring after eight bars of intro music. A chorus of villagers sing and dance mildly and he comments on them. Some soldiers arrive and Faust can not understand how they could want fame and glory in battle.

11: The famous Marche hongroise ***, instantly the most recognizable part of the score.

PART II:

Scene 1: Faust’s Study in northern Germany, a church near by. It is Easter.

2: Faust decides that life is not worth living and will commit suicide. Woodwinds come in and it gets really rather sad *.

5: A church choir announces the resurrection of Jesus ** amid solemn organ tones. Faust eventually emotes

14: Suddenly, in a flash, Mephistofeles shows up and promises Faust lots of awesome stuff (sex, riches, youth). In the orchestral transition there is some music that might remind one of Gounod’s Le veau d’or *. 

Scene 2: Auerbach tavern in Leipzig.

17: After a chorus of drinkers, the song of Brander (a student) about a kitchen rat who is later poisoned *. The drinkers sing a hardy “Amen” which Mephistofeles claims to like. They demand a song from him and he obliges with a song about a flee who gets all of his relatives to infest a royal court. Faust is disgusted with all of this and orders to be taken somewhere else. There is a nature sounds entr’acte as the scene changes.

Scene 3: A meadow on the Elbe.

32: Mephistofele’s shows Faust a vision of Marguerite. Gnomes and sylphes come out and try to sing Faust to sleep. Faust calls out the name of his beloved rather nicely *.

35: A ballet of Sylphes *, which is interrupted by Faust calling out “Marguerite” again and demanding that Mephistofele’s take him to her.

41: The act ends with a combo of three short male choruses: first soldiers, then students, then both (more rousing at least *) as F & M join them and enter the city.

PART III:

Scene 1: Marguerite’s room.

1: Faust gives us as rather sweet aria that feels like it belongs in a Mozart opera **. M eventually shows and and warns that Marguerite is coming, Faust is excited and hides.

7: Marguerite comes on with a lamp (an a strong flute soloist apparently) and goes on about girlish fear and hoping that she will one day love a handsome man **.

10: The Song of the King of Thule ***, a remarkable piece of mezzo-soprano writing. It has a surprisingly limited notation range (C4 to F#5). If I wrote an aria for the female voice, this would be it.

Scene 2: The street outside.

15: M gives a rather ornery request order from the spirits of evil.

17: The Menuet des Follets **, not a million miles away from the Marche. 

23: M serenades Marguerite **.

Scene 3: Marguerite’s room as in scene 1.

25: Marguerite is surprised by the arrival of Faust and they embark of a wonderful love duet with him sustaining multiple high B’s and at least two high C’s. She actually gets up to a high A, which is probably the only reason this role could not be sung by a contralto ***.

30: M shows up telling Faust that he needs to get out quick as Marguerite’s mother has been alerted that he is in her daughter’s room. Marguerite helps them escape with Faust vowing to return the following day. The chorus freaks out, as do the soloists. This is probably the strongest scene in the opera, certain its most operatic ***.

PART IV:

Scene 1: Marguerite’s room.

0: Marguerite has been seduced and abandoned by Faust and her song mourning his absence from her is very lovely and higher than her previous music (going up to an A5) **. In the last few moments of the scene a soldiers chorus can be heard outside, but Faust is not among them. She despairs.

Scene 2: Amid Forests and Caves, eventually leading to hell.

11: Faust’s invocation to nature is rather powerful if not beautiful **.

18: M arrives and tells Faust that Marguerite is to be executed for having poisoned her mother with sleeping medicine. Hunting horns pop in from time to time in the background. To save her, Faust must give his soul to M. Faust and M get on two black horses for what Faust thinks is the rescue of Marguerite, a women’s chorus can be heard off stage. Everything about this number goes from scary to terrifying (including the orchestration which mostly remains low temperature *).

22: Faust is in hell *, the demons (tenor and basses) crowd around and torment him in an artificial language. There are two moments where the brass and gongs are able to invoke terror but otherwise it is rather low. Six basses come on to transition between the inferno and heaven on earth.

Scene 3: In heaven.

27: The last five minutes consists of a children’s chorus and a soprano-tenor adult choir welcoming Marguerite into heaven **. Very sweet.

COMMENTS:

This is very much a work of mixed inspiration. Some of it is absolutely wonderful, such as the Marche hongroise in act 1 act 3 in its entirety, the solos for Marguerite and Faust in act 4 and the heavenly music at the end. I replayed Marguerite’s Song of the King of Thule because I find it so lovely. It is when Berlioz turns to the seedy (the tavern in act 2) or the diabolical (act 4) that everything falls into a realm of low music temperature. Faust’s journey into hell, and his reception there, is more uncomfortable than terrifying. The role of Faust, however, is very beautifully written and it is rather exciting to see his vocal range contrast with the mezzo-soprano, often times with the tenor singing at a higher (for gender) harmonization than the mezzo such as the climax of the love duet with Marguerite on a high A5 but Faust on a high C5. Mephistofeles is not that interesting and the only other solo character is Brander, who gets one song. That Mephistofeles is able to win Faust’s soul when the latter acts the least selfishly he has in the entire work (he trades his soul to save Marguerite’s life, or so he thinks) is something of a con and the fact that the journey to hell is musically anti-climatic doesn’t make this all easier to swallow. In spite of a failed and crude second act and a brief first which is sustained only a single orchestral number, the third act is an absolute joy and the fourth is mostly fine. It’s a B.

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