The Damnation of Faust

By Hector Berlioz

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Conductor, Sir Andrew Davis
Director, Stephen Langridge

A review of the performance on Feb. 24, 2010

In the company of an open mind, skepticism is a healthful attitude to bring to any "re-interpretation" of a long-established work. Often these modernizations are the excruciating product of arrogance in the extreme, a myopic self-indulgence on the part of the director who has appointed himself or herself Savior of the human soul, someone without whose daring brilliance the rest of us would continue stagnating in our bourgeois musical complacence, someone whose iconoclasm is ordained by God (or by His functional equivalent).

Enter the open mind. Sometimes a director with an unencumbered vision and a solid understanding of the work in question, lifts an opera out of its expected context and either drops it into one startlingly different or leaves it floating without one. In the latter case, what we have is a distillation of the opera's essence, which, in retrospect, I believe Director Stephen Langridge achieved in Lyric Opera's production of Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust. Though I was skeptical at first, Langridge's vision of this powerful légende dramatique eventually won me over. It gradually made sense -- philosophical, intellectual, and emotional sense -- like a deeply satisfying multistep mathematical proof. In effect, Langridge didn't just modernize Faust's story or tell the story with a new staging. On the contrary, he made the production itself an abstraction of the story, a running-in-parallel metaphor so sharp that it could have communicated the same message in utter silence.

Damnation is Berlioz' encomium to Goethe's literary creation and, by extension, to the restlessness of the human mind. Faust is an uncompromising rationalist, a man who eschews anything -- especially religion -- that violates logic. He even denies himself simple human pleasures. And this is where Langridge's vision was so insightful.

To represent the coldness of Faust's world, Langridge set the story in an imaginary mathematical milieu, the basis of which was a bare white stage. We saw various geometric shapes, angular and smooth, and equations projected on the wall. There were hanging horizontal bars of pastel lights that emerged from the fly space and withdrew back into it; in the apotheosis scene, these lights gently but steadily pitched in a torsional oscillation that suggested a natural resonance between mathematics and human emotion, probably the highest moment in this production. Langridge was sharing at least two conclusions with us. First, mathematics has inherent beauty, if not in the equations themselves, then in the shapes and surfaces those equations describe, and, by extension to physics, in color and movement. Second, irrationality itself is what allows human beings to recognize that beauty and to react emotionally to it, an ironic fact that our tragic protagonist fails to grasp.

Faust has many poignant phrases, most of which glided smoothly on Paul Groves' tenor voice. John Relyea brought to the role of Méphistophélès a suave greasiness and an authoritative lyricism that was zestful and wicked. But he rightly left to the orchestra the job of pushing his evil side forward. Finally, because tenderness comes to the story through the innocent and mournful Marguerite, the audience appreciated Susan Graham's warm and mellow mezzo-soprano voice.

The large and versatile chorus produced some thrilling tones: creamy, commanding, delicate, robust. And these singers met the call for flexibility in this work, playing happy peasants, malicious neighbors, carousing students, and angels. In fact, the many impractically sudden scene changes, especially those involving the chorus, fuel the ongoing debate about whether Damnation is an opera or an oratorio. In either case, though, what Berlioz composed and what Langridge envisioned in this production suits the theater of the mind, where the imagination can make those scene changes easy. But no matter the setting or the staging, this timeless story of human audacity and satanic cunning, especially as Berlioz tells it, shines a bright light on the consequences of hubris, whether the god targeted by that hubris is real or metaphorical.