November 10, 1996

The Carnegie Hall performance of La Damnation de Faust with James Levine leading soloists, chorus and orchestra was only the tenth time the Metropolitan Opera had programmed the Hector Berlioz Légende Dramatique. It was also the first Met performance in which French bass Pol Plançon did not sing Méphistophélès. Anton Seidl led the Met premiere on February 2, 1896, with Plançon, Clementine de Vere and Albert Lubert. In the two other performances that season Lillian Nordica sang Marguerite.

In 1906-07, the first season of competition with Oscar Hammerstein's new Manhattan Opera, Met manager Heinrich Conried advertised his special attractions in program announcements:

During the month of January and in connection with the visit of Mr. Giacomo Puccini to America, it is the intention of the Management to give performances of no fewer than four remarkable operas by the famous Italian composer. In addition to Tosca and La Bohème, which are already favorites here, two works never yet heard at the Metropolitan will be presented - Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut.

Towards the end of January, Mr. Conried will produce Salome, the most notable of recent European successes and the most sensational work of Richard Strauss. It will be interpreted with a largely increased orchestra and in a manner befitting its unique importance.

The masterpiece of Hector Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust, long popular in the concert room, will be presented as an opera on Friday evening, December 7th. In Paris, in Monte Carlo and Germany, where the opera has been produced in its new form, under the direction of Mr. [Raoul] Gunzbourg, it has made a profound impression. The new and beautiful scenery and scenic illusions provided for La Damnation de Faust at the Metropolitan will be extraordinary features of the production. Another feature will be the introduction of the "Ballet Aérien." Over three hundred persons will take part in certain scenes.

In a season of novelties, Damnation was staged two nights after the American premiere of Umberto Giordano's Fedora, with greater critical success. The New York Times felt "...the music undoubtedly gains by a pictorial setting....The passing of the soldiers to the strains of the Rákóczy march is a fine stage pageant." The Ballet of the Sylphs was repeated. However, W. J. Henderson observed that "the work is deficient in action and its pictures have no valid connection." Faust and Marguerite were sung by Charles Roussilière and Geraldine Farrar, both of whom had debuted the week before in the opening night Roméo et Juliette. Pol Plançon repeated his Méphistophélès in the four performances that were staged and a Sunday Night Concert. Arturo Vigna conducted.

The following season, Hammerstein persisted with another staged Damnation. He had prepared the production the year before and, besides, he had for the Devil the French artist Maurice Renaud who had given this version such currency in Europe. Where Plançon was an elegant man and consummate vocalist, "...the sad, sardonic humor of Renaud, his Richard III gait, whose high-heeled tragic buskin on the right foot knew not what the left foot's limping and heelless comic sock would do next, were something new. Renaud was arch-fiend to the fingertips. Even the top gallery must have caught the effect of his artificial ivory nails, inches long, set like the daggers of tiger claws on his ebony-stained hands. They alone would have made artistic mincemeat of the 'Song of the Flea....' His deathshead makeup, shrouded to the cheekbones in a pall of black, had but one streak of color. He showed over the left ear alone one spear of red feather that has known no brother here." [New York Evening Sun]

Despite Renaud and another aerial ballet with more dancers and fewer clothes, Hammerstein's Damnation lasted only three performances.


Pol Plançon as Méphistophélès in Gounod's Faust. He was not photographed in La Damnation de Faust.
Photograph by Aimé Dupont.

Maurice Renaud as Méphistophélès in Berlioz's Damnation de Faust.
Photograph by Herman Mishkin.