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Québec: La Damnation de Faust, in an astonishing staging

The Québec Opera Festival has attained a new level of achievement, offering festival attendees a work reputed to be difficult, and which usually does not attract many people to the concert hall, even during a regular opera season. The premiere of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust took place before a sold-out house. And you can bet that subsequent performances will likewise enjoy full houses. Surely, this is the best production that the Québec Opera has ever mounted.

This was a wonderful evening thanks to a truly magical and entirely satisfying rendering of the stage imagery. Among all the stagings of the opera currently in repertory, there is no doubt that in his version is one of the few who has found the key to the opera’s various interpretations, got so close to its strange subtleties, and solved the numerous problems scattered throughout this unique score.

We can understand how a stage director such as was able to tackle such a challenge and grapple with a work that was not originally conceived for the stage. Moreover, La Damnation de Faust is not, per se, an opera. This dramatic polymorphous fresco in four parts does not need to be staged in order to be performed. Usually, for the music lover, the concert version is enough. The composer himself, after long consideration, eventually gave up on the idea of creating a version for the stage.

The production by Robert Lepage and Ex Machina reaches a kind of conceptual perfection, but the same cannot be said of the voices. Tenor has neither the temperament nor the voice, let alone the stage presence required by the part of Faust. Expectations were high, maybe too high, for mezzo-soprano . It was probably too early for her to tackle a part of such a scale as Marguerite. She seemed somewhat lost in taking upon her frail shoulders this elusive character in such scenes as Marguerite’s flight during the “Chanson gothique.” Yet she more or less succeeds. Admittedly, she remains very calm during the aria “D’amour l’ardente flamme,” without exaggerated pathos, but also without any of the necessary tremulousness. Bass takes on the part of Méphistophélès with all the nobility and subtleties he possesses. Among the four protagonists, he is the only one who brings his character fully to life, offering a tough Méphisto, used to winking, playing tricks, and other such stage business. He is altogether excellent, lovely in his flowing diction, the way he handles the character’s meddling, and his great dynamic range. Finally, baritone-bass is convincing as Brander, and his “Chanson du rat” made a real impression.

The choirs of the Québec Opera under Réal Toupin were excellent, as was the children’s choir under Céline Binet.

On the other hand, the conductor was almost never fully satisfactory in a work full of sudden changes of direction and twitchy rhythms. does not understand Berlioz’s music at all. A shame for him: he doesn’t know what he’s missing.