The myth of Faust, a brilliant man who sells his soul to the devil in return for a life unconstrained by any moral laws, fascinated the 19th century. Berlioz and Liszt attempted large-scale treatments; Wagner got as far as an overture but then shelved plans for a opera; and Mahler, never one to shirk complex issues relating to the awfulnesses of the world, set the end of Goethe’s masterpiece as the second part of his Symphony of a Thousand.
But wait. The German scholar Johann Faust was a real person. What did he do? What does it mean, to sell your soul to the devil? The clearest answer to this question that I know is contained in Zoltan Szabo’s film Mephisto, about a (fictional) artist who, against his left-leaning beliefs, collaborates with those in power in Nazi Germany. A parallel to which one can see in Wagner’s choice of becoming a protegé of King Ludwig II: If you renounce your left-wing beliefs, and side with arch-conservatives like me, I will build you the theatre of your dreams in Bayreuth.
Gounod, by no means a composer of Wagner’s stature, was the first to write a full-scale opera on Faust. Rushing in, one might say, where the devil had feared to tread. His treatment avoids the issue of the bargain, instead focussing on what happens in the world when the devil rules unchecked. So the opera is about the devil, and about how a “pure” young woman, Marguerite (Gretchen in Goethe) is destroyed by the bargain Faust has made. Teddy Tahu Rhodes, magnificent as Méphistophélès, especially impressive in the aria about the golden calf, bestrode the stage as a colossus, controlling all the action; and Irina Lungu, a fabulous Russian soprano whom I had never heard before, controlled the difficult role of Marguerite superbly, often emphasising moments of emotional stress with a gorgeous pianissimo, and only occasionally letting fly with heart-rending fortes.
Among the minor roles the performance by Anna Dowsley of the pants role of Siébel, Marguerite’s equally virginal boyfriend, was an absolute gem, and her French was absolutely clear throughout. The role of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother who personifies La Gloire of France, and traditional family values (Marguerite brings dishonour on his family by sleeping with Faust – that’s what matters, isn’t it?), occasionally gave Michael Honeyman the opportunity to show his immense theatrical talents. The chorus, who voice a nervous disapproval of Valentin’s phallocentric values, were, as always in OA’s productions, superb.
The role of Faust himself is surprisingly unsatisfactory. He doesn’t seem to know how to handle the limitless freedom the devil promises to him. He fails at his first attempt to seduce Marguerite, and has to be given a lesson by Méphistophélès. And he doesn’t know what he wants. Ivan Magri handled the role well, and Gounod gives him a couple of arias which allow him to show off his splendid Italian tenor, but nothing in the production convinced the audience that the opera was actually about him.
The production, based on that directed by David McVicar for Covent Garden, is nothing short of magnificent. Opera Australia have really pushed the boat out with this one. The costumes are stunning, and the set, a collage of the religious (St Sulpice) and the secular (boxes at the Paris opera), and a street out of Les Misérables, worked really well. The production had an appealing over-the-top-ness reminiscent of Strictly Ballroom, and Baz Luhrmann’s presence is felt strongly, not only the scene in the Cabaret from Hell.
The music is delightful. Gounod can write good tunes, and indeed good operas. But when tries to rise to the challenges posed by Goethe, I feel that the can only get half-way there. Just as Luhrmann’s shadow falls over the production, so Berloz’ shadow falls over the score. Inventively orchestrated, the set pieces often begin with an arresting musical gesture which Gounod doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with – rather like his hero when faced with the limitless possibilities provided by the devil. As in Berlioz, there are lots of diminished 7ths for climaxes, but Gounod lacks the rest of Berlioz’ innovative harmonic vocabulary.
The Opera Australia orchestra, under the expressive direction of Lorenzo Passerini, played with great finesse. The new OA programs, mercifully free from advertising, are also free from a list of orchestra (and chorus) personnel, so I can’t tell you who the clarinettist was, but she or he deserves special praise for exquisite tone and phrasing in all registers.
All in all, it was a great night at the opera, and one with irresistible appeal even to those unfamiliar with opera as a genre.
Opera Australia presents
Director Sir David McVicar
Conductor Lorenzo Passerini
Venue: Sutherland Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 11 Feb – 10 March 2020