Wine and Opera part 8: La Damnation de Faust

21st March, 2014 by Rupert Millar

A boire encore du vin, du Rhin!

450px-Auerbachs_Keller

The statue of Mephistopheles and Faust outside Auerbachs Keller in Leipzig where a key scene in the opera takes place

Another adaptation, this time by the Frenchman, Hector Berlioz, of one of Germany’s great writers, Goethe.

Considered to be one of the greatest works of German literature, Berlioz read Faust in the 1820s, though it would be another 20 years before his own production made the stage in 1846.

His version does not cover some of the darker elements of Goethe’s masterpiece, toning down some of the more salacious moments such as Gretchen/Margaret giving her mother a sleeping potion so that she and Faust can have sex without fear of interruption and accidentally poisoning her; Faust and Mephistopheles killing her brother and then Margaret drowning her illegitimate child.

All very bleak.

The central thrust of both works though remains the same though, Faust, a depressed and largely atheist academic/magician/scholar, is approached by Mephistopheles (the Devil) who (not revealing who he really is) promises to restore Faust’s youth, fulfil his wishes and show him great wonders.

There is no talk of the pact Faust and Mephistopheles make in Goethe’s original, where Mephistopheles says he will serve Faust on Earth until he finds him a “great moment”, whereupon Faust must serve him in Hell – forever, naturally.

Mephistopheles comes across as more of an imp in the opera than a servant of Satan as he is in Faust – to begin with at least.

Faust accepts Mephistopheles’ proposal and so begins a supernatural series of events as Mephistopheles teleports them around Germany, his first stop being a pub.

The pub in question is Auerbachs Keller in Leipzig. The cellar is a real place, it exists to this day and dates back to at least the 15th century (see picture above).

Goethe included it as a scene in his book as it was one of his favourite wine bars in the city and the scene is also an allusion to a legend in which the real Dr Faust (on whom the literary version is based) rode a wine barrel from his study to the bar a feat which, it was said, could only have been accomplished with the help of the Devil.

Anyway, inside Faust and Mephistopheles come across some students calling for “du vin du Rhin!”.faust_casadesus

“Oh! qu’il fait bon, quand le ciel tonne,
Rester près d’un bol enflammé,
Et se remplir comme une tonne,
Dans un cabaret enfumé!
J’aime le vin et cette eau blonde
Qui fait oublier le chagrin.
Quand ma mère me mit au monde
J’eus un ivrogne pour parrain.”

“Oh! When good red wine is freely flowing,
A fig for the tempest outside!
Fill and ne’er heed the wind that’s blowing.
By punch-bowl and pipe we’ll abide!
I love the glass that drowneth sorrow!
Since I was born I ne’er walk’d straight,
From my godfather the trick I borrow,
He ever had a rolling gait!”

The students then hand over the singing duties to one of their number called Brander who sings an aria about “un certain rat dans la cuisine” and its impending death by poison.

Of course, though the main protagonist is unaware of it, he too is surely doomed to eternal hellfire and damnation thanks to the machinations of Mephistopheles.

Next time: the anvil chorus
Previously: Otello

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