Idiots at the Opera: Faust – A Noble Effort (4/2/13 performance)

Faust, the legend, as opposed to the operatic or dramatic versions, is one of those stories we all sort of know even if don’t know we know it – the deal with the devil, selling your soul, contract in blood, etc. If you recall numerous Looney Tunes in which a miniature angel and a demon both sat on a character’s shoulder urging him to do the right or wrong thing – then you know Faust. Musically, in addition to various operas, there was the great American Faust musical – Damn Yankees, the one with Lola getting what she wants, baseball and a happy ending.

There are sayings, part of the lexicon from various versions of the tale – “art is long but life is short” from Goethe, “the face that launched a thousand ships” from Marlowe.

In movies, there are versions going back to the silents and  a 1967 version of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus starring Richard Burton as the not-so-good doctor and featuring Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy. The sixties also gave us Dudley Moore selling his soul to the devilish Peter Cook for the love of Eleanor Bron in Bedazzled.

Gounod’s 1859 opera was loosely adapted from Goethe’s version, and the trouble may start there. Adaptation is a tricky business. While many operas have  been adapted from plays, some translate better than others. While the story is filled with operatic aspects – magic potions, supernatural beings, honor, love, seduction, etc – it’s harder to get to the big picture philosophical questions or perhaps simply to do it all. The music is beautiful, but the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré is a quick superficial summary. In Act I we see the elderly, frustrated Faust, but do we believe he has reason enough to make a pact with the devil? Here’s the opening with a suicidal Dr. Faust in his lab: “Emptiness. In vain – another sleepless night considering nature, and God. Not a single voice of consolation passes my ears. I languish alone, powerless to break the bonds that keep me in this world.” This is the elevator version of a soliloquy of several pages in Goethe’s dramatic-poem, which encompasses the nature of God, man, and knowledge. When Gounod’s Faust signs on with the devil, what he seems to want above all else is youth, and a “mistress’ caresses.” We don’t know the inner-Faust enough to feel him as a tragic figure or to dismiss him simply as a villain. While he “loves” Marguerite, we don’t really see him struggle. The role requires a lot of heavy-lifting vocally and dramatically, but he’s not the “hero.” It’s Marguerite’s soul we are concerned with. Faust is lost even before he signs the contract – he’s already damned himself by attempting suicide, but Marguerite can always be saved. It’s her story, more than his.

On its own terms the opera has a lot going for it – hauntingly beautiful music, meaty roles, drama, tragedy, love, war, magic, spectacle. The Met’s program notes acknowledge that the libretto which was primarily based on Carré’s Faust et Marguerite is an “affecting love story” but not “an all encompassing rumination on the human condition.”

The current production at the Met (which has its final performance this Friday at 7:30) by Tony-award winning director Des McAnuff has been knocked down by reviewers for its attempt to go for larger game. Faust’s laboratory is not in 16th Heidelberg, but apparently the 1940’s, a lab in which a nuclear bomb is being created. Faust’s vision is not of Marguerite by a spinning wheel. Instead she seems to be a pretty lab assistant with a rose on her desk, one of the many young bustling lab workers who make up the chorus. Once the contract is signed, Faust is transported seemingly back in time. The war to which Valentin, Marguerite’s brother goes off to is World War I. Later there’s visual reference to a nuclear explosion, but we still appear to be in the time frame of World War I.

There are all kinds of ways in which is this concept is both thought-provoking and immensely frustrating. If you take all this as an abstraction – a reference to the deeper Faust, Goethe’s Faust, it makes sense. Faust is trying to get at the secrets of the universe. He’s trying to unravel the mysteries of the atom itself, and of course it reminds us of Oppenheimer – what was the Manhattan project but a deal with the devil? And there’s Oppenheimer’s quote from the Bhagavadgita, “I am become death the destroyer of worlds.”

But that’s not the Faust who is presented to us by the libretto, and if the setting is more than an abstraction it falls apart. The libretto is in French, but is the setting still Germany? Is Faust working for the Nazis? Is this all the fantasy of a dying man, which the staging possibly suggests? Why is the angelic chorus dressed the same as the lab workers? And what was up with the water-cooler?

On the other hand, as a viewer (as well as a listener) I found it exciting. The concept was theatrical and daring. It didn’t detract from the story or the music. Overall a noble effort, as opposed to this season’s “rat-pack” Rigoletto designed to entice tourists and bring some Broadway glamour-dust to the Met. It undercut the seriousness of the story by glitzing it up.

While I also objected to Rigoletto‘s kitschy “new translation” of the libretto, in the case of Faust, I wouldn’t mind seeing an altogether new libretto that better encompasses “the atomic” concept and uses using both Goethe and Carré as sources. The music would support it, and it could be a reinvented Faust for our time.

Whatever one thinks of the set, there are many good reasons to catch the last performance if you haven’t seen it yet: Piotr Beczala is an authentic star. In addition to having a beautiful voice that is amazingly controlled, and the dramatic flair of a great actor, he is also an amazingly charismatic performer who can play characters who are and should be unlikable – Faust and the Duke in Rigoletto for example, and still win over an audience. Marina Poplavskaya was emotionally riveting as Marguerite. John Relyea as Mephistopheles was a bit too oily and obvious for my taste, but that may be how the role is written (or underwritten). His voice was fine. Alexy Markov came off as a pompous Valentin who I wanted to slap for cursing his sister (that’s a good thing). Julie Bouilanne as Siebel and Catherine Cook as Marthe were both very good in their respective roles as was the chorus. The conductor and orchestra did a great job. Seats are available in all sections save, family circle.

Another blogger who wrote about last night’s show, blamed the concept and set design for the empty seats. I’d rather see the Met take chances and risks, including an atomic Faust, than indulge in rat-pack stunts. The Vegas-Rigoletto was also panned by critics (at least the setting was, especially the Arab curse) but it did much better at the box-office because it was heavily advertized, and Rigoletto is a more accessible piece. Faust is long and less known to a non-opera going public. It’s a shame there were so many the empty seats at the Met, but unless they fly Placido Domingo over, there are (almost) ALWAYS empty seats. There’s a bigger problem here, and while Peter Gelb has done a lot in his tenure to popularize opera, more needs to be done, especially in terms of letting the public know that good seats at the Met cost far less than they do for Broadway musicals, discounts are available, opera isn’t just for high-brows, it’s actually entertaining and you don’t need to “know” a lot to enjoy it.

If you have 25 minutes to kill here is another version of the Faust tale (or tail) via Canadian television and youtube:

2 thoughts on “Idiots at the Opera: Faust – A Noble Effort (4/2/13 performance)

  1. Hi Marion, excellent review, very thought-provoking.
    I agree with all your points, and I particularly like your idea of a radical re-write of the libretto as part of a new staging.
    The only aspect where I disagree to some extent is in your action to my comment about empty seats. I do not live in NY so I am certainly no expert on this but of the 30 or so operas I have seen at the Met over recent years, this one had by far the most empty seats I have seen. Whether or not it is the production itself, or critics’ response to the production, something has kept ticket buyers away.
    I really love Faust the opera and was greatly looking forward to last night’s performance. Ultimately, the singing is the chief attraction, and, as we have both agreed, the performers were excellent last night, especially Beczala.
    Hope you have another chance to go to the Met again this season or in the near future.
    Best wishes,

    1. Hi Simon,
      Thank you for your comments. I hope you’re enjoying your stay in New York, and that you’ll have a chance to see La Traviata tonight or Saturday.
      I’m a newbie, so I mostly have this past season to go on, but I do know that very few performances actually sell out. Sometimes the situation is more obvious than others. Longer operas and operas that are less well-known to the general public are especially tough sells. I was at the first night of both Don Carlo and La Rondine this season, and there were plenty of empty seats.

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