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Santa Fe Preview: 'Faust'

available at Amazon
C. Gounod, Autobiographical reminiscences, with family letters and notes on music

available at Amazon
Gounod, Faust, A. Gheorghiu,
R. Alagna, B. Terfel, S. Keenlyside,
S. Koch, Royal Opera House,
A. Pappano

(released on October 5, 2010)
EMI 6 31611 9 | 3h
Charles Gounod's Faust is not a particularly great or even skilful adaptation of Goethe's sprawling metaphysical play (Part 1 | Part 2), but that is a tall order for any opera. It is, however, a beautiful opera in its own way, a loose adaptation of Goethe, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré derived from Carré's play Faust et Marguerite, full of ear-catching tunes. Gounod loved Goethe's book, recalling of his years as a Prix de Rome student in Italy that it was among his favorite regular reading. The composer wrote, in his Autobiographical Reminiscences, that when he arrived in Rome he felt the need to call upon Ingres, who was then director of the French Academy in Rome and an old friend of his father's. Ingres immediately recognized the likeness of father and son and spoke of Gounod senior's wit and talent as an artist.

During his time in Rome, Gounod added that "My favorite amusement was reading Goethe's Faust, in French of course, as I knew no German" (p. 59). He also wrote about a two-week stay on the island of Capri, where he escaped the heat by sleeping or swimming in the day and then sitting up at night to listen to the sounds of the island.
Now and again a solitary night-bird uttered its mournful note, and made me think of those weird precipices whose horror Weber has rendered with such marvelous power in that immortal incantation scene in Der Freischutz. It was during one of those nocturnal rambles that the first idea for the "Walpurgis Night" in Goethe's Faust struck me. I never parted with the score; I carried it around about with me everywhere, and jotted down in stray notes any idea which I thought might be useful whenever I made an attempt to use the subject for an opera. This I did not attempt until seventeen years afterwards (p. 82).
After a less than successful premiere in 1859, the revival of Faust in 1862 put the opera into the standard repertory for over a century. The Metropolitan Opera chose it as its first opera, in 1883, and it remains often performed there: the popularity of Faust in New York is one of the topoi in Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence, especially in the opening pages. (Angela Gheorghiu just dropped out of the new production at the Met this fall.) This summer, the Santa Fe Opera chose the opera for the opening production of its 55th season. In preparation for press week in Santa Fe, always the highlight of the summer, I have been watching a recent DVD of Faust, from a controversial production at the Royal Opera House recorded back in 2004.

The danger of a starry cast, like this one surely was, is disappointment at being short of perfection, and this DVD is an example of what can go wrong when everything seems to be right. The singing is generally excellent, with both Gheorghiu and Alagna in excellent voice and dramatically convincing in the lead roles (like most opera singers, better from afar than in too many filmed close-ups, where broad gestures and mugging seem exaggerated). Bryn Terfel less so as Méphistophéles, only because of some questionable French and a lack of boom in the lower register. Simon Keenlyside is a dashing Valentin, and Sophie Koch a believable and vocally lovely Siébel. Even when you get down to the role of Wagner, you are in good hands with Matthew Rose. The problem with big-name singers is that sometimes they can control the pacing a little too much, and the tug of war between conductor Antonio Pappano, who tends to push many of the numbers to the fast side, and the singers is disconcerting at times.

Then there is the staging, which was done by David McVicar, although as far as I can tell, his name is listed nowhere on the case or in the booklet. In fact, the DVD is highlights the names of the singers and a few mostly benign pictures of them, which might lead one to think this is a fairly run-of-the-mill production, which it most emphatically is not. Only the closeup of Terfel, licking blood from his hand, gives any hint of the harsher aspects of the staging. Now it is true that, to a 21st-century spectator, Marguerite becoming pregnant by a man who is not her husband is just not that shocking. McVicar seemed to respond to that issue by taking every opportunity to heighten the diabolic, Black Mass-sort of imagery and emphasize the cruelty of Faust's abandonment of Marguerite.

This is especially true of the Act V ballet, included more or less complete, where a ballet blanc corps of female dancers and their white tie-clad male paramours abuse a dancer version of the pregnant Marguerite and the reanimated corpse of Valentin, ultimately "burying" her baby in a small, black coffin. (This was years before Black Swan, remember.) Anyone with a sensitivity to the treatment of Christian images or the excesses of modern opera directors is fairly warned. Then again, if you always wanted to know what it would be like in an alternate universe where Bryn Terfel was a drag queen instead of an opera singer, you have to see this (video embedded below). In the ballet scene, he appears in a revealing black gown, arm-length gloves, and tiara.

Other Articles:

Heidi Waleson, The Tests of Patience (Wall Street Journal, July 19)

Brian Holt, The French Revolution (Out West Arts, July 16)

James M. Keller, Santa Fe Opera charms with first 'Faust' (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 2)

Anne Constable, Santa Fe Opera kicks off 2011 season with first 'Faust' (Santa Fe New Mexican, June 16)
Gounod added the compulsory ballet to the fifth act only for the 1869 premiere at the Opéra de Paris, so the decision to cut it, as often happens in modern productions, is easily justified. The staging now on view at Santa Fe Opera, directed by Stephen Lawless, does not cut the Walpurgisnacht either, using by one report "a huge cast that includes singers, acrobats, roller skaters, freak-show freaks, ballet dancers to play the seven most beautiful women characters in opera, and even a stilt-walker played by the opera's technical director, Eric Moore." This is the company's debut with the opera, and according to Santa Fe Opera's general director, Charles Mackay, "It has given every department the opportunity to pull out all the stops."

When performed complete, Faust is a big opera, so it makes sense to make it grand, and the insanity of the Walpurgisnacht, when witches gather for a Black Mass on the Brocken, is enough excuse for just about any excess of staging. Then again, how much is too much? To return to Gounod's own words, he wrote of Faust that it was "the greatest theatrical success I have ever had. Do I mean that it is the best thing I have written? That I cannot tell" (p. 158). Trying to explain what he had sought to do with the opera, he wrote, "Dramatic art is a branch of the art of portraiture. Its function is to delineate character, as that of the painter is to present feature and attitude." From that point of view, McVicar's version of the ballet may say a lot, just not necessarily about the characters of Faust.

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