The legend of Faust — an aging scholar who barters his soul to the devil in exchange for the love of Marguerite and promises of restored youth — has captivated artists for centuries. Among the many musical retellings of the tale, Hector Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” stands out as one of the greatest.
The work is a cautionary tale, demonstrating the suffering and guilt of bargaining with the devil.
While other high-profile composers, including Wagner, Schumann and Liszt, have adapted the celebrated tragic play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, it is perhaps Berlioz's fascination with the tale that makes his version unique.
“This marvelous work fascinated me from the first,” Berlioz wrote in his memoir. “I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theater, in the street.”
An ingenious combination of opera and symphony, “The Damnation of Faust” requires armies of performers, with its inclusion of military marches, drinking songs, folk-like ballads, Latin church music, offstage trumpets, orchestral effects — and a significant amount of storm and fury when Faust descends into hell, during the fearsome “Ride to the Abyss.”
The Utah Symphony, conducted by music director Thierry Fischer, will join forces with Utah Symphony Chorus and Utah Opera Chorus to fully stage the sprawling, episodic piece. For this production, two premiere guest artists have been employed for the lead roles.
Michael Spyres, called “one of today’s finest tenors” by French Opera magazine, tackles the Faust part, which he calls “one of the great characters.”
Faust, he says, “shows the folly of man’s ways, and it is a beautiful depiction of our human condition. We can all have pity on Faust’s character flaws because we are living the struggle of Faust daily. Our desires pull us in every direction, and only when we use critical thinking does our consciousness prevail and more often than not it takes us to a higher plane.”
The tenor soloist sees “strong parallels between Faust and our existence as humans.”
“We have tried throughout time to control our own destiny and have grappled forever with the question of free will. The reason Faust bargains his very being I believe is to make a dent in the armor of destiny, to show that he is in control,” he explains. “We all can sympathize with this character because we have all been in the situation of feeling like our life is not our own.”
At a crucial point in “The Damnation of Faust,” Faust declares to Méphistophélès, the devil disguised as a gentleman, “Jy consens,” translated as “I consent.”
“This is his moment of taking fate by the reins,” Spyres says. “I would argue that in this moment he is acting out our most important and precious trait of humanity, by making a conscious decision whatever the outcome may turn out to be. Even if one does not want to take on this responsibility, the fact remains that we are all making this decision every day, and this is what makes us human.”
Mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey, a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera, sings the role of Marguerite, who is “the embodiment of innocence. She has an obvious sensuality and grace, which attracts Faust to her. However, her innocence, naïveté and belief in the absolute purity of love form the essence of who she is as a character.”
The Utah Symphony production will be Lindsey’s first performance as the woman who Faust demands that Méphistophélès secure her love.
“I have lots of musical colors swirling around in my head at the moment, but it’s only until we all come together and collaborate on the music that we will find what we have together,” she says.
“To be able to sing this Berlioz heroine is incredibly exciting. The simplicity, the beauty of the music and text leave me truly inspired artistically.”
Joining Lindsey and Spyres are baritone Roderick Williams, who has appeared with all BBC orchestras, London Sinfonietta and the Philharmonia, performing Méphistophélès; and bass-baritone Adam Cioffari, a former member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, playing the role of a student named Brander.
If you go
What: Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” by the Utah Symphony with the Utah Symphony Chorus and Utah Opera Chorus
Where: Abravanel Hall
When: Sept. 27-28
How much: $18-$69
Tickets: utahsymphony.org or 801-533-6683