Stéphane on Faust

Updated: Mar 5

By Jen Roberts

Stéphane Denève

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was just 25 when he discovered a French translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. He was fascinated by the text and immediately began putting the passages to music. He published Eight Scenes from Faust in 1829 and expanded it into The Damnation of Faust, Dramatic Legend in Four Parts, in 1846.


The Damnation of Faust is, first and foremost, a story. In the first two parts, Faust is in a state of despair, contemplating the renewal of nature and realizing that simple pleasures are something that will continue to evade him. Back in his study, Méphistophélès (the devil personified as a person) approaches him and proposes that he abandon his life as a scholar for one of pleasure. Faust accepts. Then Méphistophélès shows Faust a beautiful woman, Marguerite, in a dream vision.


In the final two parts, Méphistophélès leads Faust into Marguerite’s room where he learns that she has also dreamed of him. The two declare their love for each other but part to avoid disgrace and the disapproval of Marguerite’s mother. Faust later learns from Méphistophélès that Marguerite has been thrown in prison for accidently killing her mother by giving her too much of a sleeping potion. Faust agrees to sell his soul to Méphistophélès in exchange for Marguerite’s freedom. He thinks he is on his way to Marguerite, but when he sees demonic apparitions, Faust realizes he’s been taken to hell, while at the same time, Marguerite is welcomed to heaven.


“It’s so imaginative and so poetic,” Music Director Stéphane Denève says of the piece. “It’s ultra-romantic and has all the big Romanticism themes–loneliness and nature.”

Through the four parts, the audience is taken on a journey that is packed with humor, romance, and lots of emotions. There is a Hungarian March, big Arias, religious music, a duo, a trio, and even some country music. “You hear a lot of different styles of music,” Denève says.


The score calls for four soloists, a mixed choir, and a children’s choir, in addition to the orchestra.


“Anything Berlioz is very special–very out of proportion,” says Denève.


The children’s chorus, for instance, is on stage for just a few short minutes. Instead of questioning the logistics of having a large children’s choir for such a short period of time, Berlioz just did it. “It’s not commercial–it’s pure artistry in the most romantic way, and I love that,” says Denève. “I love people who are bigger than life, who go to the end of their dream. It pushes the boundaries in every direction and that freedom is what I find fascinating.”


Berlioz is known for being just as unconventional in his life as he was in his music. It’s said that his music was a natural extension of his personality, always changing and ever unpredictable. “Berlioz is nuts–he’s crazy,” says Denève.


Much to Berlioz’ dismay, his work was always more successful abroad than in his native France. The first performance of The Damnation of Faust at Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1846 was not well-received and was a financial setback for Berlioz and was never performed in Paris again during his lifetime. It wasn’t until 1910 that it became part of the Paris Opera’s repertory.


“For me, it’s always an immense privilege to be able to do it. It’s an incredible masterwork which is difficult to program because it requires a lot of forces,” says Denève. “We have a stellar cast. I would not have done it if we didn’t have the right cast.”

Isabel Leonard

Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano, who will play Marguerite, has never performed the piece before but is excited to get into the score. She says her process is the same for any new piece–she likes to hold the paper score in her hands at first and then will scan it into her iPad for future use.


Leonard will join Michael Spyres, tenor (Faust), John Relyea, bass (Méphistophélès), Anthony Clark Evans, baritone (Brander), the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, directed by Amy Kaiser, and the St. Louis Children’s Choirs, directed by Barbara Berner.


Audience members should be prepared “to go on a psychedelic journey that will enrich your life on many levels,” says Denève. The first–of course–is to be entertained by the “fascinating orchestration. It’s a kind of movie written before movies existed.”


The second is more philosophical. “I think the story is extremely relevant today and forever because we are in a civilization where nobody wants to age, and everybody wants every pleasure–what are you willing to pay for it?” asks Denève. “Symbolically it’s an interesting moral subject–what is the price to pay for pleasure in life?”


This article appears in the February 2020 edition of the SLSO's Playbill.

These concerts are presented by Mary Pillsbury.

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