Discover the story of Berlioz's La damnation de Faust
The scholar Faust is alone amongst his books, lost in thought. He sings of his inability to connect to the natural world disconnected from his fellow men; and goes for a walk. Returning to his study, he is about to commit suicide when he is halted by a memory of his rural past and happy family life. He attends the military school where he works to lecture cadet students on the Romantic poets. He loses control of the classroom and is evicted from the school by the headmaster.
Depressed and disillusioned, Faust returns to his study. Convinced that life no longer has any meaning, he resolves to kill himself. He is about to drink poison when the sudden pealing of church bells and the sound of an Easter hymn interrupt him, reminding him of the simple faith of his childhood. Suddenly ashamed, he throws the poison away. The devil Méphistophélès appears, mocking Faust’s newly-restored faith and offers him an alternative: the fulfilment of his every dream and desire.
Faust accepts, and is suddenly transported to a busy tavern. Brander, the landlord, sings a song about a rat, followed by an irreverent Amen from the whole company. Méphistophélès continues the entertainment with a song about a flea, but Faust, disgusted by its vulgarity, quickly insists that they leave.
Faust finds himself at the Roses Club, a brothel with narcotic flowers as its theme. Méphistophélès and his spirits lull the scholar into a dream state, showing him a vision of a beautiful young woman – Marguerite. Inflamed with desire, Faust begs Méphistophélès to take him immediately to her, and they set off towards the town.
Evening has fallen, and Faust and Méphistophélès are concealed in Margeurite’s simple room. With every moment that passes Faust is increasingly convinced that he has found his ideal woman – pure, innocent and good. Margeurite returns home, troubled by a dream she had had about a future lover, whom she fears she will never meet. She sings a ballad about the King of Thule.
Méphistophélès summons his spirits once again. They perform a demonic ritual, while Méphistophélès sings a song predicting Margeurite’s downfall. Méphistophélès leaves the two lovers together; they declare their mutual love whilst repeatedly navigating Margeurite’s mother back to her bedroom.
Méphistophélès suddenly reappears, interrupting them. Margeurite’s reputation is in danger; the neighbours know that a man is in her room, and her mother is awake. With Méphistophélès’ help, Faust quickly makes his escape.
Abandoned by Faust and pregnant, Marguerite waits, hoping desperately for a visit from her lover. Outside her window life goes on; she
hears the noise of cadets, and repeatedly administers a sleeping draught to her mother in case of Faust’s return.
Faust, meanwhile, is in the forest. Still restless and unsatisfied, he calls on nature to console him. Méphistophélès appears with news: Marguerite is to be executed for the murder of her mother, accidentally killed by an overdose of the sleeping draught. Faust pleads with Méphistophélès to spare her, who agrees on one condition – Faust must surrender his soul.
The bargain is struck. Faust believes they are going to Marguerite but gradually realises that he is travelling to witness the execution of his beloved. The devils and demons rejoice at the torment of their new conquest, while Faust, now in a hell brought on by the pursuit of his romantic ideal, has blood on his hands.
Image credits: La damnation de Faust, Festival 2019, photos by Richard Hubert Smith