'La damnation de Faust'
at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
impresses GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Teatro dell'Opera di Roma inaugurated its 2017-18 operatic
season with a rarity — in fact, with a 'non opera',
Hector Berlioz's La damnation de Faust. I was in the audience on
12 December 2017. In a first version, Berlioz subtitled the work as a
'concert opera', as he had done for Roméo et Juliette in 1836. In 1845-46 he changed the subtitle to
'dramatic legend'. He was penniless and depressed — he had expected a
success similar to that of Roméo et Juliette. The audience seemed
to like the audacious attempt to summarize the first part of Goethe's Faust
as translated into French by
Gérard de Nerval, but critics were very harsh. He tried to revise the
text and the music, but to no avail. Yet, after Berlioz's death in
1866, La Damnation became one of his most performed compositions.
Musicologist Julian Rushton counts a hundred performances in France alone
between 1876 and the end of the nineteenth century. Now, it is often performed not as a concert
piece, but as a fully staged opera. Solely in Italy, over
the last fifteen years, important stage directors such as Hugo de Ana,
Terry Gilliam, and the late Giancarlo Cobelli took up the challenge to
make the dramatic legend into an opera.
The production chosen to
inaugurate Teatro dell'Opera's season is a joint venture with Turin's Teatro Regio and
Valencia's Palau de Les Arts Reina Sofia. It is masterminded by stage
director Damiano Michieletto and his usual team of collaborators — Paolo
Fantin for the sets, Carla Teti for costumes, Alessandro Carletti for
lighting and Rocafilm for videos. I have been quite critical of
Michieletto's recent staging — eg 'Heavy Stage Direction and Sets', 22 June
2017 — but this time I must admit that his concept
is an essential element in making this production a real masterpiece of
ingenuity and innovation.
We are not in the Middle
Ages or in the Early Renaissance, but today in the Western world. There
is nothing gothic in the sets or costumes. The Faust legend and pieces of
Goethe's work as translated into French are an opportunity to delve into
Berlioz's psychology in a contemporary
setting. In short, a young man with a strong depressive tendency — Faust,
acted and sung by Pavel Černoch, harassed and bullied by his peers and
fellow scholars — develops an ever closer relationship with an extrovert
fellow — Méphistophélès — Alex Esposito — who makes him acquainted with a
night club, run by Brander — Goran Jurić, and finally introduces him to a
woman, Marguerite — Veronica Simeoni. In order to spend a full night with
the young man, Marguerite provides an excessive sleeping potion to her
mother who dies. Hence, she is condemned to death. In an attempt to save
Marguerite, Faust sells his soul and his body to Méphistophélès, who gladly
pushes him into Hell. Marguerite is executed but in the final scene she
is pardoned by the Virgin Mary and
goes to Paradise.
The 'dramatic legend'
requires an enormous orchestra, some
members performing from the boxes, and a huge chorus, led
by Roberto Gabbiani and accommodated on a stairway platform above
the main scene, where projections have an important function. White is
the key color, with Marguerite in simple shocking red attire.
The acting is first
rate. Pavel Černoch, a young tenor from Moravia, is simply spectacular:
he is on stage for two hours and fifteen minutes and sings almost all the
time with a clear timbre, very good legato and excellent phrasing.
He reminds me of Jonas Kaufmann in a concert performance at the National Academy of Santa Cecilia in 2006 — both tenors easily change from lyric
tenor to bari-tenor voice. Alex
Esposito is an athletic baritone-bass. Veronica Simeoni is a top mezzo,
as shown, for instance, in the ballad of King Thulé.