Faust – Charles Gounod

Written by:
Harvey O'Brien
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Inspired by Michel Carre’s 1850 stageplay Faust et Marguerite, Charles Gounod’s Faust was first staged in Paris in 1859, a time and place of political unease and outright war. A key character in the libretto is Marguerite’s brother Valentin, a soldier whose devotion to duty and righteousness sends him off to fight leaving his sister vulnerable to the affections of the diabolically assisted Faust, who promptly wins her affections, then impregnates and abandons her.

Valentin’s reward for his heroism in the name of country is murder at the hands of Faust and he condemns his weak-spirited sister for giving in to temptation. Her temptation is a very human one, of course: simply love. Darker, less benevolent desires haunt the Opera’s actual protagonist, whose lusts for youth are multifarious and inspire his deal with Mephistopheles. The basic story is well known, of course, but Carre, and in his turn Gounod, moved towards contemporary reality by reading the story more in terms of a core relationship between two people tormented by fear and desire, one eventually saved, one damned. Faust is such a rich and resonant subject that it seems difficult to miss with it. Gounod certainly didn’t: the opera was a continual success from its first run.

Musically, Gounod is credited with being among the key figures in the development of Lyric Opera, a stepping stone between the high-minded classicism of Grand Opera and the popular explosion of Operetta in the late nineteenth century. In spite of a move towards less portentous subject matter in Lyric Opera, there was also no small amount of political resonance in this iteration of the Faust myth (produced as both play and opera were in the era of Napoleon III). It is made all the more effective by the increased focus on character drama that came with Lyric Opera, simplifying the musical forms by putting an emphasis on songs and a lighter musical tone.

This Faust played out human choices in the face of social and political forces which were evidently meaningful in the face of contemporary reality, and that applicability held through the history of the Third Republic. It didn’t stop Faust being mythic, of course, and with the endlessly symbolic Mephistopheles always on hand to help the good doctor towards damnation, France’s moral compass was definitely spinning to Gounod’s tunes right up to the German invasion.

This seems to be where Opera Ireland picks up the story in the current production. Though it is difficult to tell exactly, the setting appears to be France during World War II. It is a little unclear not least of all because director Dieter Kaegi’s vision falls short of being wholly clear, coherent, or even very good. Set in a single room environment, Kaegi offers a Faust without the inferno, an eternal purgatorial nowhere space neatly evoked by Stefanie Pasterkamp’s waiting room/bus station set, complete with cracked plaster, falling tiles and mundane, anonymous benches. Thomas Marker’s lighting enhances the sickly feeling, casting the entire stage in a green-gray hue which drains life of all color. This truly is a place without purpose, an empty metaphysical waiting room between life and death, heaven and hell, in which the eternal drama of temptation takes place. The problem is that though this should work nicely, especially in the context of 1940s France, it actually fails.

The world is so bereft of real life signification that it ultimately becomes meaningless to the point of irrelevance. Valentin goes off to war, and some evidentially fascistic bully-boys raid the set at one point, beating homeless drunks and seemingly raping the pregnant Marguerite off stage, and yet there is no great sense of the political here, or, indeed, the social. The one departure from this frozen environment is a badly staged party scene climaxed by an extremely uncomfortable looking trapeze artist who singularly fails to break a smile during aerial gymnastic acts which are meant to be on one hand celebratory and on the other damnably decadent. Otherwise we are locked into this ‘realist’ space of the bus station (or whatever it is), and it ultimately seems too forced a metaphor. The libretto continues to refer to locations which don’t exist, events which aren’t depicted (including the crucial fifth act scenes in the Hartz mountains where Faust has a vision of Marguerite’s sufferings that brings him back), and notions of duty and responsibility which seem extraneous to a world so disconnected from reality.

To be fair, Kaegi is probably trying to throw the focus on the basic human drama as Carre and Gounod did, but here he comes up against the old enemy of Opera Ireland in the Gaiety Theatre, a lovely Victorian music hall venue essentially unsuited to the staging of Opera. Opera Ireland have struggled gamely with the limitations of this venue for many years, and produced some startling and original productions (especially the brilliant Orfeo ed Euridice). However, this time ambition has exceeded execution, and the shaky high concept approach crashes on the rocks of compromise.

Though Irish tenor Anthony Kearns and French soprano Chantal Mathias have nice voices, they struggle to bring any sense of subtlety or characterization to their singing or acting, and spend most of their time fighting for volume against the orchestra. Irish bass Gerard O’Connor fares little better as Mephistopheles. His performance lacks any sense of menace or charm, and though he fulfills the function of a bully, this devil’s grip on Faust’s moral conscience seems flimsy at best, especially when Kearns is concentrating so hard on singing. This Faust seems to barely notice Mephistopheles is there, a problem compounded by their being two Fausts on stage most of the time (the other being his elderly incarnation played by American tenor Joe Turpin).

The most effective acting on the stage comes from two of the minor players, Irish mezzo-soprano Edel O’Brien (a relative, I must confess) in the role of Martha, who brings comic animation and lusty gusto to her role of the lady-in-waiting seduced by Mephistopheles, and, particularly, Croatian mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupic, whose sparkling characterization of the love-struck pageboy Siebel provides the production with one or two of its most worthwhile moments.

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