Most readings of the Faust legend centre around excess and its punishment, about a man whose desires for knowledge, permanent youth or love may not be granted without penalty. But that’s not the way Richard Jones sees it: his staging of BerliozLa Damnation de Faust, which opens this year’s Glyndebourne Festival, is all about Mephistopheles. From beginning to end, the spotlight remains on Mephisto and everything happens according to his demonic plan: Jones and dramaturg Agathe Mélinand go so far as to add in many sections of dialogue (“derived” from the Goethe) to reinforce the point.

Christopher Purves (Méphistophélès) © Richard Hubert Smith
Christopher Purves (Méphistophélès)
© Richard Hubert Smith

After a faltering first moment, Christopher Purves rose to the task magnificently. Surtitles were provided but not needed: Purves’ French enunciation, both declaimed and sung, was a model of clarity as he embodied the spirit of pure evil. Purves’ voice is regularly called upon to fill much larger houses than Glyndebourne, and it showed: it’s a joy to hear a baritone villain who has quite so much power in reserve. The voice shifted seamlessly between unctuous and snarling: warm in temptation, terrifying when the devil bared his teeth.

Allan Clayton has one of the warmest, most lyrical tenor voices around, and In the title role, he provided the outstanding aria of the evening with the Part 4 paean to nature “Nature immense, impénétrable et fière”. Clayton’s voice is so beguiling, his phrasing flows so easily that one could not fail to be transported for the moment from the horrors that are about to engulf Faust.

Allan Clayton (Faust) © Richard Hubert Smith
Allan Clayton (Faust)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Sadly, the same comments about diction cannot be made of Julie Boulianne, making her Glyndebourne debut as Marguerite: I was unable to understand a word she was singing, even attempting to back-translate them from the surtitles. Boulianne’s voice has a lot going for it: pleasant timbre, good intonation, solidity across the register – but that’s not enough when the words have vanished altogether.

Julie Boulliane (Marguerite), Allan Clayton (Faust) and actors © Richard Hubert Smith
Julie Boulliane (Marguerite), Allan Clayton (Faust) and actors
© Richard Hubert Smith

Berlioz wrote La Damnation de Faust not for the stage but for the concert hall, which causes a series of difficulties for any director attempting to create a fully staged production. Richard Jones comes up with a whole series of interesting ways to cope with these. The big military number, the Rakoczy March, is woven into the fabric of the piece: Faust is a teacher who is hounded out of a military academy and the cadets reappear in various guises through the evening. As well as the added dialogue, there are various cuts and rearrangements of musical sections to improve flow. A simple doorway, labelled with the various scene settings (the military academy, the brothel, damnation itself) is repeatedly shifted in front of the action and then away again, allowing characters to pass from one setting into the next and allowing demons to take on mortal form.

It’s all thought through carefully and intelligently, but I question Jones’ fundamental purpose, as reflected in the balance of the two main roles and the muted colour palette chosen by designers Hyemi Shin and Nicky Gillibrand. For me, the Faust legend works best when Mephistopheles and the delights he offers are dangerously, temptingly attractive. Here, those delights were drab at best: Clayton’s Faust is not a strong man who has been felled by diabolically overwhelming temptation, but a mild, hapless character who is only too easy a prey for such an overpowering force as Purves’ Mephisto. The result is that the production lacks dramatic impact: “weak man snapped up by all-powerful demon” just isn’t newsworthy.

Julie Boulianne (Marguerite), Ashley Riches (Brander), actors and chorus © Richard Hubert Smith
Julie Boulianne (Marguerite), Ashley Riches (Brander), actors and chorus
© Richard Hubert Smith

Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra do their very best to fill in the dramatic gaps. Berlioz’s music is as extravagantly colourful as Jones’ staging is low-contrast, and Ticciati draws some superb playing from individual orchestral soloists (the oboe is especially notable in Part 4, and horns notable throughout) as well as maintaining immaculate balance between orchestra, chorus and solo voices. The Ride to the Abyss and the ensuing Pandemonium were played and sung explosively, the Glyndebourne Chorus and children’s choirs giving it their all.

The weirdness quotient is steadily ratcheted up as the opera nears its close, and there’s a particularly weird choice of epilogue, which I won’t spoil. But fine musical performances and the excellence of Purves and Clayton aren’t enough to suppress a gnawing feeling that the point has been missed.