Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Faust at the Lyric

After a good long stretch of nothing worth writing about, we made it up to Chicago on Sunday for the matinee of Gounod's Faust. After an exhausting drive (if you are ever in Chicago on the day of the marathon, do not leave the interstate for any reason) and a delicious lunch, I really should have downed a large quantity of coffee before the show, especially since I had never heard or seen Faust before going in.

The opera itself has a fascinating story: it opened the old Met in 1883 and was the most popular operatic work in the world for decades, serving as the banner performance all across America for the first half of the twentieth century. If a person has seen one anthropomorphism of opera, it is sure to have been a classical Brunnhilda in winged helmet and breastplate. If he has seen a second, it was likely an old-fashioned Mephistopheles in red tights and handlebar mustache.

But like so many works, see, e.g., the complete works of Meyerbeer, it fell on rough times and faded out of fashion. So it was unusual to see Lyric performing not only Faust, but also premiering Bizet's Damnation of Faust in the same season. In some ways, I can see how Faust lost out over time to Verdi and Puccini works; it lacks the same kind of dynamic scale-shattering set pieces that form such memorable parts of Trovatore or Tosca. The music lacks the power to bring home in properly dramatic fashion the story that itself contains enough dramatic energy for several operas. Lyrical, emotional, rich---the music of course is all of these, but not powerful. It needed just a little bit more, a little something extra whose absence I cannot blame on the performers.

I have mixed feelings about the staging too. When houses revive Faust today, the red tights are long gone and Mephistopheles appears as the suave, well-dressed gentleman. Frankly, I find this an appropriate change: even when he openly hawks his diabolical wares, Satan comes in attractive trappings. But his stage presence left something to be desired: the ambiance of Act 4, sc. II, Marguerite's torment in the church, conveyed little of the sense of abject terror afflicting the protagonist on stage. Likewise, Mephistopheles appears silently onstage at the opera's conclusion, after the angelic choir has proclaimed Marguerite's salvation, and confronts Faust with the contract he signed in Act I. The paper then bursts into flames and falls to the ground: a dramatic touch, but an ambiguous one. If I were to sign an unpleasant agreement, I would be happier of nothing else than to find it smoldering in ashes. Furthermore, the devil has not heretofore been accompanied by pyrotechnics; why introduce them now? If props could rig the "contract" so it burned but was not consumed (propane line up the actor's sleeve, etc.), that might be one thing. But in the larger context of the performance, this particular stunt falls flat.

In the end, I think the less than adept portrayal of the power of Hell may go hand in hand with the decline in Faust's fortunes generally. Audience members today simply are not scared of the devil. I certainly cannot expect more from producers, who strike me as on average less intelligent than audience members, and frankly less skilled at their portion of the operatic experience. I had the distinct misfortune of spending the entire performance on Sunday sitting next to some buffoon who found the entire affair actually comical. Judging from the sounds in the house, others suffered a similar fate. This criticism excludes, of course, the few bits of intentional levity (Mephistopheles: "Your husband, ma'am, is dead and sends his greetings!"---dark, but somewhat comical). Faust is a story that only has anything to tell its audience if they believe that Faust's actions have real consequences: i.e. they have to believe in hell. Otherwise, it becomes simply a rather inexplicable story of a bumbling man who goes to great lengths to win a woman and then abandons her for no reason whatsoever. The leaven of contracts, a duel, and infanticide do not save such an otherwise helpless story. You cannot have Faust after reducing Mephistopheles to a baritone Cherubino with superior negotiating skills and a few magic tricks.

So how do we expect contemporary audiences to appreciate, and contemporary directors to stage, Faust? When the I-gave-so-much-money-they-put-a-full-page-biography-of-me-in-the-program fellow is a yoga master, such a request defies accommodation. Perhaps we should simply be thankful for living just outside Chicago, rather than New York.