‘Concert opera’ and ‘dramatic saga’. Such are the descriptions Hector Berlioz himself offered forLa Damnation de Faust. As with his choral symphony, Roméo et Juliette, the French composer was adamant on following the path least travelled in realising a new combination of text, song and symphonic music. Gérard de Nerval’s French translation of Goethe’s Faust formed the basis for the work. Berlioz remains faithful to the structure of Goethe’s play but contrary to Goethe, places the emphasis on the scholar’s fall and not his eventual salvation. The courageous Faust is convinced by the Devil, in the guise of Mefistofeles, to bid farewell to philosophy and live life in the real world. All manner of earthly delights are promised him. At the end of a kaleidoscopic concatenation of adventures, Faust is placed before a dilemma: to continue his exciting life or save his beloved Marguerite. He chooses the latter and signs, in so-doing, a fatal pact. In Berlioz’ opera, instrumental evocations of landscape are intermittently followed by intimate portraits. Ecstasy, religious experience and demonic temptation flow into one another. The composer breaks open the traditional moulds and gives soloists, choir and orchestra the space for romantic expression. La Damnation de Faust colours outside the lines and therefore remains a fascinating work.
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