La Damnation de Faust, Berlioz
Deutsche Oper, Berlin
8th May, 2015
Berlioz and Goethe's strange, dark tale was told at the Deutsche Oper last Friday night in a haunting and fittingly surreal manner, led by director/ choreographer Christian Spuck. But in a show filled with such fascinating spectacles as gargoyle-ish demons, windswept nuns, and voodoo dolls, the biggest impact was made by the soloists (the three leads, plus an English Horn player) and their gorgeous voices.
Clémentine Margaine played a humble and deeply feeling Marguerite, her "König in Thule" aria sung with mesmerizing presence and a voice combining viola-like richness with startling power. (Spuck's setting of the aria, with her pacing on a revolve under the stars, while stepping over a doll-sized, sleepy country town, added to the effect.)
Yosep Kang was a heroic Faust, with a lush voice well-suited to French repertoire. However, little was asked of him staging-wise, which meant a lot of just standing and singing (or despairing/sleeping) while the chorus and dancers enacted the story. He also seemed bogged down by Jacques Lacombe in the pit, who in general reined in Berlioz's unpredictable genius with the three S's of mediocre conducting: it was same-ish, square and sluggish.
Samuel Youn's Méphistophélès had the easy charm, sharp physicality, and effortlessly luxurious vocalism one wishes for in the role.
Special mention also goes to solo English Horn player Iveta Hylasova Bachmannova, who was seated on the stage in Marguerite's house during her second aria. Not only had she memorized her solo (a rare ask for a pit musician), she played with such a full, beautiful tone and expressive detail that we forgot she wasn't singing herself.
And this was the surreal power of the show: with furniture blending into trompe l'oeil backdrops, the stage floor briefly illuminated as a skull, or more viscerally disturbing moments such as the soldiers' chorus fluidly alternating from marching drills to acts of sexual violence, one never knew exactly what one was seeing, and couldn't quite keep a grasp on any of it. (Much praise is due to the team of dancers in their multiple creepy manifestations).
Like Méphistophélès himself, this Faust fascinated and eluded, its dark energy pulling us ever-deeper to a point of no return.
Bottom line: Heaven-sent voices illumine the dark depths
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