By George Grass
The current uninspiring Lyric Opera season (excepting the upcoming Ring cycles and Gotterdammerung) lurches to its conclusion with performances of Charles Gounod’s Faust. Perhaps Lyric management figured this warhorse would leave the subscription crowd smiling as they get ready to fork over for next season. And it should have–given an even halfway competent production. But while the singing is vibrant, the amateurish direction, sets, and costuming and the drab orchestral realization are an embarrassment–one more sign of the contemporary artistic scene’s inability to come to terms with the aesthetics and mores of other eras.
The Faust story has been inspiring artists–Marlowe, Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann, Wagner, Boito, Mann–for about 450 years. The original story seems to have been based on the life of Johannes Faust, a reputed magician who died shortly after Luther started the Protestant movement, making him roughly contemporary with the legendary mastersingers of Nuremberg. Faust’s life and leaguing with the devil appeared in Das Faustbuch, first published in 1587 and sometimes attributed to Faust himself. For the first 200 years the focus of this legend was on the deal with the devil, a subject of immense interest to the medieval mind. But during the enlightenment the emphasis began to shift; the devil was losing his grip on the imagination, and secular learning was on the upswing. By the mid-18th century Gotthold Lessing was emphasizing the nobility of learning and the idea of a philosophical reconciliation with God. The modifications of the legend culminated in Goethe’s poem, published in the early 19th century, the dawn of the Romantic era; here the possibility of redemption was the key factor.
Gounod’s librettist, Michel Carre, had freely adapted the first part of Goethe’s poem in his play Faust et Marguerite. The stuffier German scholar may have turned his nose up at this relatively lightweight treatment, but Gounod understood that this kind of story line suited the romantic stage. His opera retains Goethe’s betrayal-and-redemption thematic framework but adds a patina of Victorian moralism and religious uplift, something that resonated with the bourgeois tastes of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, Faust was one of the most popular operas in the repertory during the 19th and early 20th centuries–so popular that the Metropolitan Opera was inaugurated in 1883 with a performance of it.
To some degree Faust has since fallen from grace, in part because it suffers from the same problems that some of Shakespeare does: The ethos that animates the characters is foreign to Americans of the 1990s. Honor? Pride? Martial glory? Passionate love? All too many of us have been taught that they’re ignoble chimeras. But both Shakespeare and Gounod knew that not all of the members of their audiences were sophisticated, and they pandered to the sniggerers with stock comic relief.
As the “standard” repertory ages there’s a growing need for stage realizations that can connect the minds of the audience with the worlds of these works. But rather than try to make Gounod’s characters and situations emotionally understandable, director Frank Corsaro and designer Franco Colavecchia inexcusably indulge in dull cliches. They give this production the usual anticapitalist tinge by moving the setting to a 19th-century factory and then try to make an antiwar statement by having the soldier boys march off looking like something from the Second Empire and return looking like the 8,000 tattered stalwarts who surrendered with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox–even though they’ve been victorious. Of course 19th-century sabers are a bit less convenient for chasing demonic apparitions than cruciform sword hilts, but then again the only common demon in the last century was demon rum. There are plenty of other inexplicable changes. The libretto has the pious soldiers driving away Mephistopheles, but Corsaro lets Satan drive away the soldiers. The supposedly detached and despairing old Doctor Faust is shown in his laboratory displaying a necrophiliac fascination with a female corpse. And the costumes are drab 19th-century garb, with the remarkable exception of Mephistopheles, who would look at home in a comprehensible version of the opera. Perhaps Samuel Ramey brought his own costume and donated the production one to the Salvation Army. One gets the impression that the staging is the product of a college theatrical workshop that had to come up with something quick and didn’t take the time to work out all the theatrical implications.
The singing is the high point of this show–the cast is excellent. Ramey gives a fine dark vocal performance. Richard Leech’s youthful tenor opened up once he got past the opening old Faust scene, and Renee Fleming gave voice to a very innocent Marguerite. Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang a noble Valentin (he probably would have acted one as well if he’d been allowed to). Patricia Risley gave an engaging pants-role performance as the moonstruck Siebel, though she was a little too Cherubino boyish. Those who enjoy beautiful singing may be able to simply ignore the visual aspects of the show, though it’s a bit much to ask the singers to shoulder all the weight of making this an artistically worthy production.
The orchestra was dull under the insipid conducting of John Nelson. The famed “Soldiers’ Chorus” came off as the “Soldiers’ Dirge.” If this is Nelson’s own reading of the score one must ask what planet he just came from. If he’s simply kowtowing to the director and designer, then he ought to start reading memoirs of conductors who had some spine.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Dan Rest.