Glyndebourne Festival 2019 Review: La Damnation de Faust

Allan Clayton Provides A Complex Portrayal Of Titular Hero In Berlioz’s Masterwork

By Jennifer Pyron

Conceiving an artistically defining experience that tells the story of Faust as an opera might seem overwhelming and too intense of an idea. Especially when one considers how this story was composed and experienced by Berlioz in concert form and that portraying Faust’s journey to hell, could be hell itself. 

In “La damnation de Faust,” Berlioz emphasizes the lord of darkness, Méphistophélès, as the story-teller and elicits a palpable eeriness via the music that ushers one by means of the head and the heart to ask the inevitable question of whether the torments of hell exist while on Earth. And if so, to what degree? 

Also, how would a director depict this evil realm in an opera without overwhelming the Glyndebourne audience? And what does Richard Jones’ defining touch look like on stage while portraying Faust’s demise?

The answer is found in Glyndebourne’s internal heartbeat which defines efficiency itself. Leaning on the journey via beautifully executed music and creating enough space for one to fully digest Berlioz’s most controversial work proved key. The fact that Jones stood by this core belief and steered the production away from being too heavy and overly contrived, made Glyndebourne’s debut of “La damnation de Faust” one hell of an opening performance.

Hell’s Imagined Landscape 

Matte black panels of wood infinitely lined the stage which housed the Glyndebourne Chorus, Youth Opera and Trinity Boys choir in uniformity. Lit alone by a sea of muted blue lights, and black lights made sure the neon colors of the dancer’s costumes pop. Welcome to the jungle. Hell’s imagined landscape. 

This set design provoked a steep climb for one’s eye to view the many chorus members that were seated neatly above. However, this purposely intended design commanded audience members to sit, wait and observe. To feel the stark emptiness that bounced back from the wooden panels. And to question. Everything. 

What tricks will be pulled when Méphistophélès takes stage? And how many set design changes would occur and provide for an entertaining look inside of his demonic world, a closer look into his twisted mind? And why were the flea-like creatures taking stage, before the start, stretching their grotesquely complex neon costumed bodies? Pleasurably writhing in the infinitely felt emptiness.

It was all set for a special arrival. And when Méphistophélès, interpreted by Christopher Purves, firmly stood by his tiny stool, etched appropriately with a pentagram on its back, a guttural sense of fear expanded and insured all was worth the wait. The master himself had arrived. The spirit of life ready to guide you and your every desire. 

The Review of Hell’s Companions

Purves’ initial command of power at the start marked the journey of a well-guided tour set to expose one’s mind to just how far a human being could fall. How tragic a life could become when spent on life’s banality. And how suffering at the hands of darkness may be easier and more tempting than one could possibly imagine for themselves. Purves melted the unconscious minds of the weak and toyed with the conscious minds of the doubtful through his performance. 

He magically acquired more power along the way, with his smooth demeanor and fast friendship with Faust, performed by Allan Clayton. The story developed easily as all experienced the sensuous feels that take over when love first strikes the heart. And when Faust falls into a love sick torment spiral with Marguerite, a palpable desire to immerse entirely in the under tow of sexual drive, passionate ecstasy and more-more-more at every level took hold. A human’s basic instinct to overeat and be damned by the sickness that gluttony provokes. And Clayton kept eating, which made all want to eat more too.

And just as one was partaking in watching Faust taste all of love’s desires with Marguerite, sung by Julie Boulianne, it was Purves who masterfully lulled listeners into the dense chamber of his soul. He performed a role that pushed boundaries and expectations. Purves’ proved master of the night with every turn. 

His greatest skill was managing time wisely and exuding an innate sense of ownership in every scene. He easily eased his way into one’s psyche and transposed concrete ideas into a wash of doubts, fears, and the giving-into-the-unknowns. As a performer, he showcased precisely how to acquire even more power through his use of time via efficiency at all levels. Whether it be through his movements or his pauses ahead of his movements, even between his notes, Purves was the grand master of this wild journey.

And Clayton dutifully mirrored Purves down the damned rabbit hole, but not without leaving a strong mark on the minds of the audience himself. Clayton fit the mold of Faust at his best when shown teaching his students at the German military school contrived by Jones and his team which fully laid out the idea of spoon-fed students mimicking mindless sheep. But Faust was not just any teacher. He was a bleeding heart for life itself and Clayton emoted an internal connection to this characteristic as he scrambled on stage collecting the boys’ photographs of women under their desks and inevitably losing to the fight because in this story goodness be damed. And damed he proved to be as Méphistophélès lead Faust out of the classroom into life where he could further tighten his relentless grip. 

Clayton’s voice sent chills up one’s spine while he delivered a deeper message. He cut out his bleeding heart and bled for life and love itself. No matter the cost along the way, Clayton gave into his feelings and sang from a place of deep vulnerability. Leaving one to feel more themselves. It was because of Clayton that one could hope. Dream. Desire. And expand into a world of unknowns because it was simply all that could be done.

Tragically, while in this exposed state however, the audience was introduced to the start of Marguerite’s final demise. Julie Boulianne’s “D’amour, l’ardente flamme” was a revelation. All moments lead up to this aria for Boulianne and she did not disappoint. A thread of silver guided every note and Boulianne’s glittering high notes transformed hearts. She was worth the wait and definitely the bright star of the dark night.

A Final Demise & Damned Death

It was also in Part Four when a sparse collection of fur trees were on stage and Clayton performed “Nature, immense, impénétrable.” As he stood within their open arms of comfort, it was obvious he did not feel comfortable at all. In fact, it was in this aria where Clayton’s genius unfolded and convinced the audience that solitude equaled desolation and in fact it was the drama and the ruling of Méphistophélès that could take his heart pangs away. 

Conductor Robin Ticciati took the reins at this pivotal moment in the opera and created a bed for Clayton to lie in. And for this most intricate turn, the music proved to be most powerful. Together, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the three choirs paved the way for all to enter into Heaven and hear the other-worldly voices in it. Listeners reveled in the glory and could easily see the present moment as being the greatest gift of all a chance for Faust to feel redeemed.

But just as the story decides everyone’s fate, one is thrown to the helm of the most torment when discovering Marguerite is to be executed and her baby to be marked by the devil. Purves’ and Clayton tag team in a series of happenings that open all to the idea of a life or death crossroads. Is life worth living for after causing the deaths of others? Could Faust live with himself knowing that Marguerite, her mother and the baby were dead as a result of his life choices?

Jones made this final decision for all really the crux of the entire performance. Instead of throwing more on the stage and busying the audience’s senses, he took more away. And it was in the nakedness of this production’s entirety that housed a perspective of true understanding. When Faust agreed to Méphistophélès contract and sold his soul to serve him the following day, the stage went dark and both men scurried backwards until they bashed their bodies against the back wall with a crashing sound. Both blew straight to hell in a fury and were engulfed by the portal of blackness.

Marguerite’s life, appropriated by the guillotine, and her demise are now the blood that forever stains Faust’s hands. And it is at this time when Jones added a twist about the fate of Marguerite’s baby. Another form of sacrifice to the evils, the baby, is seen placed into the hands of a priest, sang by Ashley Riches, who fumbles distastefully as he seeks to do with it what he wants.

In conclusion, it may be that Berlioz positioned Méphistophélès to be multi-dimensional in this story. However, one might have discovered Faust to be the most complex because he was the most relatable at the human level. And it was Clayton that proved this to be true.

This left one to ponder the question of “How do I spend my time and in who’s hands lies my own fate?”


ReviewsStage Reviews