By DAVID CAIRNS
Mr. Kubelik, can't we have another chord?'
Mr. Gabor Cossa, the Cambridge producer, has gone about his entire work in a similar vein, and there has been no one to stop him—not even the conductor, Mr. David Willcocks, whose muddled programme note informed us that Berlioz was no poet—has he read the text of The Trojans?—and Faust a work without dramatic unity. Spectacle and the mad whim of a mis- guided producer are let loose to strut about on the ruin of a masterpiece. The careful scheme, with its well-ordered sequence of movements and frequent thematic interrelations, is laughingly jettisoned; the scenes are all reshuffled and a new text written for several of the numbers. This public announcement by Mr. Cossa that he knows better than the composer has been coldly received in the press; we may be blind to the full greatness of Berlioz, especially of his neglected Faust, but we are not that blind.
Yet Mr. Cossa, though totally and damnably
wrong, is wrong for the right reason. The most fundamental error of all is to assume that The Damnation of Faust can be simply transplanted to the operatic stage—it is much too dramatic, too imaginatively pictorial for opera. It is an opera of the mind's eye. We see the freshness of a spring morning on the Hungarian plains, the silence and dead-cold loneliness of Faust's study in the small hours, the great rout of marching soldiers and students receding into the distance, the presence of Mephistopheles gradually darken- ing over the room where Faust and Marguerite meet, the hoofbeats of the .horses which carry Faust and Mephistopheles to the Abyss, and we apprehend them, more vividly than we ever could in the theatre, as well as (in several cases) at a different pace. Our feelings, as it happens, are those of Berlioz himself, as is clear from the letters which he wrote to Scribe about the project for an operatic version (to be called Mephisto- pheles); the 'Dramatic Legend' was to be reshaped in many ways.
The project came to nothing, and The Damna- tion of Faust remained what it is, a work per- fectly designed for the concert hall. Our obstinate attempts to stage it are typical of a refusal to accept that Berlioz could possibly know what he was doing. But if it has to be staged as it is, it clearly cannot be done in terms of conventional- operatic procedures. Mr. Cossa's idea of an open stage bare of scenery, and a wide screen with lantern slides projected on it, is good; alas, he botches it hopelessly. It is not merely that the slides, in the words of The Times, are 'in disparate artistic styles and of dubious evocative value'; not merely that one of them, the plains of Hun- gary, directly and facetiously contradicts the text by depicting a full-blown harvest scene, complete to the last stook and sunset-tinted stubble, while down below poor Faust frantically apostro- phises the 'green fields' of spring; not merely that most of the numerous dances are as ineffec- tive as only opera ballet can be. The grossest sins of the production are musical sins. It is not Berlioz the poet but Berlioz the musician who is most savagely trampled on. When a producer is insensitive enough to allow that most terrifying sound in all orchestral evocations of evil—the chord for four muted horns just before Mephistopheles' Song of the Flea'—to be drowned in the barging and scraping of chairs on the stage, or to intrude the gratuitous figure of Faust's apprentice Wagner into the scene in Faust's study—music which breathes a physical sense of solitude and dead of night—we can be prepared for anything to follow.
We get it. Marguerite's aria with the cor anglais, 'D'amour l'ardente flamme,' which is a cry not only of loss but of wild sensual longing, becomes a chaste prayer delivered a genoux in front of a mahogany statuette of the Virgin (April Cantelo communicated a good deal of it, however). Faust's tremendous Invocation to untamed Nature, one of the supreme tone poems in nineteenth-century music, is set (beneath a slide suggesting something out of The Bridge on the River Kwai) to a text in which the benefactor of humanity speaks of the fulfilment he has found in reclaiming con- siderable acres of swampland.
All this, and much else which I lack space and strength to relate, is done in the name of 'heightened dramatic tension' and greater fidelity to Goethe. But the dramatic tension, with which The Damnation of Faust is sizzling, becomes as slack as the rope, attached to the pipes of the Guildhall organ, on which various nude-torsoed swamp-clearers pretended to heave. while Faust sang (or should have been singing) of 'Nature immense, impenetrable.' As for Goethe, what precisely has he to do with it? Berlioz knew his Faust, Part I, inside out, but as a dramatic musi- cian he was at liberty to abandon whatever features he pleased of Goethe's treatment of the legend, as Goethe had done with the writers who came before him. (To complaints of his location of Faust, against Goethean precedent, in the plains of Hungary—a complaint still inanely re- peated by some modern critics—Berlioz has his own adequate answer : 'the composer would have led Faust to any place whatever, if he had found the slightest musical reason for doing so.') The Faust of Berlioz is a different person from the Faust of Goethe. Besides, in trying to bring them together, Mr. Cossa has only succeeded in losing them both.
In the end the Cambridge performance did not really harm Berlioz. It was just a frivolous but quite amusing romp played against splendid incidental music. Mr. Willcocks's conducting was pedestrian in rhythm, but he made his under- graduate orchestra play well enough to remind us that regular professional performances of this great and now absurdly neglected work must be restored to our musical life—but in the right place.