Méphistophélès shows Faust a vision of Marguerite

The one and only work on the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) program this weekend (May 5 and 6) was described by Maestro Stéphane Denève in a 2019 interview as "almost psychedelic. It's extremely evocative and it's so powerful and it's very difficult." That remarkable work is the unusual (if not unique) 1846 opera/oratorio hybrid "The Damnation of Faust" ("La damnation de Faust"), by Hector Berlioz.

[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]

Originally planned for March, 2020, the performance of this Romantic blockbuster was cancelled around 48 hours in advance, along with the rest of the SLSO season, because of the dramatic rise in COVID-19 infections. Now, finally, we'll get to see it—and with the same singers we would have heard three years ago.

Berlioz in 1832
Painting by Émile Signol

If you're the sort of person who reads these previews and attends the symphony on even an occasional basis, you probably don't need me to tell you who Faust was. The legend of the elderly scholar who sells his soul to Mephistopheles in return for youth, vitality, and greater knowledge goes back at least as far as the late 16th century. It might have even been inspired by an actual early 16th-century alchemist named Johann Georg Faust. I say "might" because at this chronological distance, legend and history start to merge, like far-away objects on the highway.

What intrigued Berlioz, in any case, was neither history nor legend but rather Goethe's 1808 two-part "Faust: A Tragedy" in an 1827 French translation by Gerard de Nerval. In his "Memoirs," Berlioz wrote that "this marvellous book [sic] fascinated me from the first. I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in the street" (although not, one hopes, at busy intersections).

Berlioz was not alone in his fascination with the Faust legend in general and Goethe's version in particular. Romantic-era composers could not get enough of it, and the list of concert and operatic works based on it reads like a veritable "murderers' row" of the greats and near-greats of the 19th and early 20th centuries: Gounod, Liszt, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner, Sarasate, Mahler—you name it, they did it.

The depth of Berlioz's obsession can be seen in the fact that his Op. 1 (that is, his first published work) was "Huit scènes de Faust" ("Eight Scenes from Faust")—a work Berlioz later found so unsatisfactory that he collected as many copies as he could find and burned them. It was, however, a futile gesture, since it had already been published. If you're curious as to what it sounds like, there's a recording by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit on Spotify. The composer would later incorporate this material into "Damnation."

One aspect of the Faust story seems to have had a particular fascination for Berlioz: Faust's pursuit/stalking of Marguerite, his seduction and abandonment of her, and his eventual damnation as a result. To some extent, that might have been simply part of the hothouse atmosphere of Romanticism, but it's also a bit reminiscent of the composer's real-life stalking of British Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson nearly two decades earlier. That resulted in the creation of the "Symphonie Fantastique," followed by a disastrous marriage that left Smithson's life and finances in ruins. The fact that the marriage ended just a few years before the premiere of "The Damnation of Faust" can't really be seen as coincidence, in my view.

The arguably sordid sources of its inspiration not withstanding, "The Damnation of Faust" is a gripping mashup of symphony, oratorio, and opera. It calls for a huge orchestra—around 100 players will be on the Powell Hall stage—and makes sometimes extreme demands on the musicians. Add in the adult chorus, the children's chorus, and the soloists, and you have forces that are massive even by Berlioz standards.

Berlioz originally called it an "opéra de concert" but finally settled on the designation "légende dramatique," and while it has occasionally been staged, it's mostly heard in a concert setting, as it will be this weekend. It is, in any case, a reminder that for Berlioz, as Hugh MacDonald writes in Grove Online, "there existed rigid categories of neither form nor medium. Opera, cantata, song, and symphony all merge imperceptibly one into another and overlap constantly. The important criterion is the matching of means to expressive ends."

Ultimately, "The Damnation of Faust" is a masterful piece of musical storytelling that requires little introduction. That said, if you want to familiarize yourself with the work in advance, there are plenty of resources on line. Mr. Munro's notes have a detailed summary of the story and there's a complete live, semi-staged performance on YouTube conducted by Jonas Kaufmann with José van Dam as Faust. Thanks to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, there's even a downloadable version of the original French text with a line-by-line English translation. And, of course, there's the 2019 recording by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra on the SLSOs Spotify playlist.

You won't need a printed translation at Powell Hall this weekend, of course, because the translation will be projected on a screen above the stage.

The SLSO Chorus
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

Maestro Denève assembled an all-star cast for "The Damnation of Faust". The title role will be sung by American-born tenor Michael Spyres, who has recorded the part with the Strasbourg Philharmonic under John Nelson. Marguerite, the object of his lust, will be mezzo Isabel Leonard, who sang Ravel's "Shéhérazade" with the New York Philharmonic just before the pandemic shutdown. She has performed at the Metropolitan Opera and also on "Sesame Street."

Bass John Relya will be the cynically sinister Méphistophélès. A veteran of the opera stage and recital hall, the list of conductors he has worked with reads like a current "who's who" of international luminaries. The head shot on his web page even looks a bit wicked.

Completing the cast is baritone Patrick Guetti in the cameo role Brander, a student who sings a somewhat crass song in Scene 6 about a rat whose high life in the kitchen comes to an abrupt end:

Certain rat, dans une cuisine
Etabli, comme un vrai frater,
S'y traitait si bien que sa mine
Eût fait envie au gros Luther.
Mais un beau jour le pauvre diable,
Empoisonné sauta dehors
Aussi triste, aussi misérable
Que s'il eût eu l'amour au corps.

Which roughly translates as:

A rat once in a kitchen
Set itself up like a real monk,
And did itself so well that the sight of it
Would have moved the fat Luther to envy.
But one fine day the poor devil,
Ate poison, and leaped out
Just as wretched and frantic
As if it had been [in] heat.

This motivates Méphistophélès to reply with one of the more famous numbers from "Damnation," " Une puce gentille" ("A charming flea"), about a flea who rises above his station with rather more success than the poor rat.

But I digress.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Children's Choirs, and vocal soloists on Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 8 pm, May 5 and 6, in "The Damnation of Faust." It should run around two hours and fifteen minutes, plus intermission. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday performance will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

This will be the last live performance in Powell Hall until after extensive expansion and renovation is completed in 2025. Meanwhile the SLSO's 2023/2024 season will take place at multiple venues in St. Louis.

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