Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Spanish production of Berlioz opera in 1999 seems like a UFO tale


In the dramatic TV series “Everwood” the teenage piano prodigy Ephram, for all his talent, resents his father’s insistence on “being right” rather than living a life. So it is with Goethe’s character Faust, who desired ultimate wisdom, the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the ability to do without emotions not within his choosing, and without Faith. He would see Heaven and Hell for himself.

So thought French composer Hector Berlioz, who fashioned his own libretto for “La Damnation de Faust” from a translation by Gerard de Nerval, with some material by Almire Gandonnierre. Berlioz, we think, was a bit crazy, maybe a substance abuser, and went on his own trips.

The 1999 performance, on DVD from Constantin, by the Orfeon Donostiarra de San Sebastian, conducted by Tolzer Knabenchor, looks like it could play on the Sci-Fi channel. Much of the action takes place in a storied glass cylinder, that essentially becomes a UFO (like in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”). There is the love story plot with Marguerite, but love here hardly has anything to do with submitting one’s soul to the larger purposes of the future of civilization. Instead, these are the end times; there is eroticism, and then judgment, and eventual salvation indeed. This opera performance depicts Hell with bodies floating around in the cylinder, and in a dorm-like structure that recalls “Doctor Atomic” (and maybe recalls the concentration camps, too). But then, at the end, Heaven becomes like the inside of the same cylindrical UFO, in four levels, light and airy, with choirboys instead of “Grays”, the same chorus that opened the opera when Faust was carrying lawn pesticide equipment. (There’s other stuff, like ladder climbing; the cast cannot suffer from acrophobia.) Some of the dorm design (and the “interior décor” of the UFO) do recall Spanish art and architecture. Perhaps the UFO takes us through a time-space worm hole to another Universe to some kind of finality, where we are entitled to knowing good and evil once and for all.

The music, despite the choruses (and a great fugue) sounds airy and lightweight to me compared to a lot of other Berlioz, with the ending quiet and in high registers only. (It does not impress the way the conclusions of Boito’s and Gounod’s operas on this material does.)

I visited San Sebastian-Donesta, Spain in April 2001, having taken a bus from Bilbao, and I recall the stunning circle beach, as well as the canal lined with impressive homes. In Basque country, this is a fascinating corner of the world, a place you might hole up to write your movie script if you have the money.

Most of us get introduced to Hector Berlioz with the 5-movement Symphonie Fantastique. I recall a 1963 Grand Award recording (the Paris Opera conducted by Vandernoot) with the snarling bass in the March to the Scaffold (a challenge to cartridges and tone arms of the time), when “35 MM film” (also used then by Everest records) was considered a recording innovation.

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