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S & H International Opera Review

Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust, San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2003, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (HS)

In any of the Faust operas, it's easy for the devil to get a lot more than his due. Whether Gounod, Boito or, in this case, Berlioz, Méphistophélès gets the juiciest music and the greatest chance to upstage the rest of the cast.

The Swiss-born director Thomas Langhoff, familiar to theater audiences in Austria and Germany, made his operatic debut in 1992 staging this very production at Munich Opera, from which San Francisco borrowed the sets and costumes. Langhoff keeps ol' Mephisto constantly on stage as Faust's shadow, and requires him to climb around the set. In the third of seven performances, that seemed to suit Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson just fine. Stocky and jowly but remarkably agile, Sigmundsson commanded every scene, which makes sense as he's the one propelling the action.

More importantly, Sigmundsson displayed musical virtues that kept the production, with the action crammed into a claustrophobic set-within-a-set and costumes designed to shock, from upstaging the music. He displayed impeccable French phrasing, one moment sly and sinuous, another gruff and powerful. He easily overwhelmed the Faust of David Kuebler. At least in this performance, it would be charitable to class the American-born singer as a tenorino. At times he was virtually inaudible from 20 rows away, despite a set shaped like a megaphone.

Fortunately, German soprano Angela Denoke provided a Marguerite of vocal purity and unaffected style. There wasn't much about her singing that one could identify as French in style, but it played well, making us believe in Marguerite as an unwitting foil even if we later learn that her sin (in Berlioz' version of the story) was to poison her mother.

Ah yes, the story. In Berlioz's "dramatic legend" (he refused to call it an opera and provided only sketchy stage directions), there's no extended buildup to Faust's taking up with the devil. Instead, a world weary Faust is about to end it all with poison when he hears an Easter hymn, which raises his spirits just as Mephisto appears, urging Faust to get out in the world instead of moping around his study.

There is no contract for his soul yet. That comes much later. First Mephisto shows Faust a rowdy bar scene and a riverside seduction, and finally arranges an assignation with Marguerite that begins, in this production, with distinctly voyeuristic overtones. Ultimately, the devil maneuvers Faust into ignoring Marguerite, which sends her into a tailspin that leads to her mother's death. Guilty upon learning that she is to be executed for this crime and feeling remorse, Faust agrees to Mephisto's offer to help in exchange for Faust's soul. On the rescue ride, Faust instead detours into the abyss and an angelic chorus welcomes Marguerite into heaven.

Although Berlioz sets these various scenes on a battle plain, the banks of a river, Faust's study and Marguerite's room, this production reduces everything to a square area that seems to be suspended over the all-black stage. At first it seems almost like a giant television screen. Around this stage-within-a-stage, the chorus sits, including a few in several high boxes to the left and right. Inside the square, what appears to be a pair of walls extends to the rear to a vanishing point. Doors open from the walls, sections of the floor rise and fall, and colors play on the "sky" to suggest changes of scene.

Faust wears a mousy brown suit, suggesting he's everyman. Mephisto is in black, carrying a briefcase, and Marguerite wears white. The chorus is in evening wear, occasionally joining in the action, sometimes from their seats in the onstage audience, sometimes quick-changing from their tuxedos into soldier or peasant garb. A few, decked out in what can only be described as S&M regalia, augmented with fake breasts and bottoms, are introduced in the seduction scene, here turned into a highly stylized S&M orgy. They remain in costume as Mephisto's minions for the rest of the opera.

In general, it's a lot of eye candy and sly symbolism for a short two-hour musical work, even if Berlioz wasn't thinking of anything nearly so kinky as an S&M orgy when he wrote that gentle, lulling seduction music. The production works best in the bedroom scene, where Faust hides and watches Marguerite undress (only to a nightshift) before appearing to her. She recognizes him as the one she has dreamed about, but after all that seduction/orgy buildup they just sing to each other. Denoke was clearly holding back to balance with Kuebler's meager sound. If anything, it enhanced the chaste feeling.

In the pit, conductor Donald Runnicles found a welcome balance between French suavity and the orchestral wheezes, grunts and clanks Berlioz wrote in for effect, using various instrumental combinations in a dazzling kaleidoscope of sound. Runnicles never lost the thread. The chorus, augmented in the finale with girls and boy all in white, covered itself with glory.

These are the first San Francisco opera performances of this work, which is less often staged than Gounod's or Boito's versions of Goethe's masterpiece. Except for Kuebler's undervoiced Faust, the company did splendidly by Damnation. Performances continue through July 3.

Harvey Steiman




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