“Music has great wings that the walls of a theatre keep from fully extending.” Berlioz was fascinated by the translation of Goethe’s Faust by Gérard de Nerval, but he was also aware of the difficulties involved in turning such a complex masterpiece into a musical work. La Damnation de Faust, which takes its form from a reworked youthful piece, Les Huit Scènes de Faust, remains unclassifiable, overflowing the customary confines of an opera libretto by blending song and the spoken word to better create great orchestral pages. Called a dramatic legend, it is presented as a series of tableaux vivants whose staging remains difficult. It is more of a theatre of the imagination, intertwining musical scenes ranging from solitary meditation to outbursts from a crowd, by way of the soaring passion of love or demonic fury, depending on the composer’s inspiration. The work was a failure when the concert version was presented in 1846. But the first full staging in 1893 was a big hit. Since then, concert versions have alternated with often spectacular and seminal stagings like the one by Maurice Béjart in 1964. Despite its hybrid nature, reinforced by the lack of consistency in the dramatic composition, La Damnation has established itself as a major lyric work representative of the Romantic aesthetic. Faust is the archetype of the Romantic hero in the grips of internal suffering, seeking to be cured in the heart of Nature, “immense, impenetrable and proud,” and, finally, led by love to choose the fires of hell where Méphistophélès takes him.
The action takes place in the Middle Ages, in Hungary and Germany. Overwhelmed by his distaste for life, Faust ends his days by taking poison. Easter songs lift him out of his despair by bringing back his childhood faith, but this mystical fervour leads to the sudden appearance of the devil, Méphistophélès, who promises him all the pleasures of life and takes him to a tavern in the midst of a noisy crowd. These vulgar pleasures do not win Faust over, and Méphistophélès takes him to the banks of the Elbe where he introduces him to the young Marguerite in an enchanting dream. As soon as Faust and Marguerite meet, they recognise and swear their love for each another. But the two lovers must separate, as Méphistophélès warns them that they have attracted the attention of the neighbours and of Marguerite’s mother. Despite his promise to return the next day, Faust seems to have forgotten Marguerite in order to plunge into the contemplation of nature. Méphistophélès joins him and tells him that the girl is condemned to death for having poisoned her mother. To save her, he demands that Faust sign a compact committing him to serve him, and he takes him with him to Hell at the end of a fantastic ride. Only Marguerite is saved and welcomed into Heaven by a choir of celestial spirits.
On a spring dawn on the Hungarian plains, as the old philosopher Faust contemplates nature’s awakening alone, the sound of peasants singing celebrates the pleasures of love. Soon in the distance comes the sound of a war march sung by the Hungarian army as it prepares for combat. Faust remains indifferent, “far from the human struggle and far from the multitudes.”
In northern Germany, Faust, in his office, raises a cup of poison to his lips, determined to end his life which has become too painful, when an Easter song rings out in the church next door, saving him from despair by returning his childhood faith to him. At that moment the cynical Méphistophélès appears, having come to promise him: “All that the most ardent desire can dream of.” He takes Faust to a cabaret in Leipzig, in the midst of a noisy and vulgar crowd. Then, seeing that Faust is disgusted by so much triviality, he takes him to the banks of the Elbe where he lulls him with an enchanting dream in which he sees the perfect image of his love, Marguerite. Upon awakening, Faust wants to find the girl, and Méphistophélès suggests that he join up with a band of soldiers and students heading to the city.
It is evening. Hidden in Marguerite’s room, Faust observes with wonderment as the girl braids her hair whilst singing the old ballad of the King of Thulé. In front of the house, Méphistophélès orders his army of wills-o’-the-wisp to bewitch Marguerite. Faust and Marguerite recognise each other at first sight and swear their mutual faith. But Méphistophélès interrupts them suddenly to urge Faust to flee, as the neighbours, awakened by the demonstrations of the two lovers, have cruelly alerted the girl’s mother, who goes to surprise them.
In her room, Marguerite, alone at her spinning wheel, gives herself over to grief. Despite his promise, Faust has not returned, and she waits for him, overwhelmed by the feeling that she has been forgotten. Far from her, he is carried away by his desire to be one with nature, which appears to him to be the only consolation for his “endless ennui.” Méphistophélès joins him and announces that Marguerite, accused of having poisoned her mother with a “certain brown spirit” that Faust himself had recommended for putting her to sleep to thereby facilitate their future nightly encounters, has been sentenced to death. To save Marguerite, Méphistophélès demands that Faust sign a compact committing him to serve him in the netherworld, and he takes him to Hell at the end of a terrible race into the abyss. Marguerite is saved and the choir of celestial spirits welcomes this “naïve soul whom love led astray.”