Aspen Music Festival capping season with an epic ‘Damnation of Faust’
If You Go …
What: ‘The Damnation of Faust,’ Aspen Festival Orchestra
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Sunday, Aug. 20, 4 p.m.
How much: $90
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box offices; www.aspenmusicfestival.com
Over the course of the Aspen Music Festival’s summer season, themed “Enchantment,” concerts have included music based on fairy tales, myths and legends of magical transformation. The season’s epic closer, Berlioz’s dramatic legend “The Damnation of Faust” looks at the theme from a different, darker angle.
“Since the theme of the summer is ‘enchantment,’ what could be more enchanting?” said festival music director Robert Spano, who will conduct Sunday afternoon’s concert in the Benedict Music Tent. “And maybe not in the obvious meaning of the word, but ‘The Damnation of Faust’ takes that concept to a demonic level.”
Berlioz’s take on the timeless and often retold story of temptation and damnation will be performed by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, with tenor Bryan Hymel in the title role, bass-baritone John Relyea as Mephistopheles, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Marguerite and bass Federico De Michelis as Brander. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus will play the hordes of peasants, soldiers, drunks, demons and damned.
Fully staged productions of Berlioz’s “Faust” are relatively rare, because of the resources and bodies required to pull it off. And it is a strange piece of music — not quite an opera nor a cantata — filled with inventive harmonies, wild orchestration and seemingly incongruous elements like its famous Hungarian March.
“He wants a Hungarian March so, sure, let’s put Faust in Hungary for awhile,” Spano said of how Berlioz manipulated the Faust legend to fit his musical tastes. “There’s this wonderful variety of musical depiction of emotion and experience. … There’s this kind of excitement to me in the mind of the composer, that he takes material and pulls it in so that he can create the kind of musical entity that he had in mind.”
For the cast of the Aspen production, of course, this is fertile ground.
Hymel, 38, has performed Faust in major houses across Europe, including in his debut at the Opera National de Paris.
“I’ve lived it with critical audiences,” Hymel said. “If it was a new piece it would be a different situation. I don’t have that added stress of doing something for the first time here.”
The tenor is no stranger to Aspen. He spent four summers studying here between 1998 and 2004, singing with the Aspen Opera Center’s productions and studying with Philip Frohnmayer and W. Stephen Smith and winning the Verdi Competition during his first summer here.
“It shaped me as an artist and it shaped me as a human,” Hymel said of his time in Aspen.
Hymel received his undergraduate degree from Loyola University in his hometown New Orleans, and lived at home through school. So coming to Aspen was a formative experience that did more than launch his vocal career.
“It was kind of my college experience — to be on my own, to be surrounded by students from all the top conservatories in the world,” he said. “And coming from New Orleans, where I was a big fish in a small pond, in Aspen I got to swim with some people who were used to a faster current and it showed me that I could up my game.”
Berlioz’s Faust has become a signature role for Hymel. He recorded the “Nature Immense” aria from the piece his 2015 album “Héroïque.” The role demands a lot of the singer in its title role, including some challenging high C notes and two big arias before a harmonically complex duet with Marguerite.
“As long as I can save enough gas in the tank before I get there, I’ll be fine,” Hymel said of the duet.
Playing the demon attempting to woo Faust, John Relyea is reprising the role he played to great acclaim in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2008 production and elsewhere. Relyea has taken on the charismatic devil in three staged productions and three concert performances, which embedded put this devil into his creative bones.
“Once you’ve done a staged version of it, it gets into your system because you’ve physicalized the character,” he said of his preparations in Aspen this week. “It comes back pretty quick.”
The rich inter-rhythms of Berlioz’s language allow for actors to bring out nuance and idiosyncrasies in the characters — it’s not the kind of opera where the cast is called on to stiffly belt out a series of arias. While playing Mephistopheles, Relyea said, those possibilities are particularly juicy.
“He’s a very sarcastic character,” Relyea said. “So there are ways to layer that along with his darker side, which is always underneath. I’ve found sometimes I’ll feed the darker side more and the humorous side less. But there’s an essence that stays there.”
The 45-year-old bass-baritone has a history of playing bad boys. He’s also been the four villains in “The Tales of Hoffmann” and has played the demon in both the Gounod version and the Berlioz take on “Faust.” But, he says, those experiences don’t inform each other much, as they are so wildly different.
“I find the Berlioz more enigmatic,” Relyea said. “The momentum is much faster, the scenes transition very smoothly and you have a strong sense of an unbroken line of a story happening. … It’s more modern, in a way.”
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