Faust’s Guilty Conscience and Other Crimes Against Opera

by Janet Tassel (January 2012)

I’m reading from the liner notes for my very old LP of Gounod’s opera, Faust. Here we are introduced to Faust himself:

“The curtain rises and we are in the study of Dr. Faustus, the learned alchemist, in a town in mediaeval Germany.  There he sits, the great scholar: an aged man, his back bowed by years of bending over books and parchments, his eyes, that should have delighted in beauty, worn and enfeebled by fruitless study.  It is the hour before dawn; the hour when most men see life stripped of its illusions. Faust looks back on the years and sees in them only a ghastly futility. He has learned, but he has never lived.”

It is over, the end of all human endeavor is death. “He picks up a goblet of poison: better to summon death than wait for death to summon him. He lifts the goblet to his lips,” but at that moment some young girls pass his window, singing merrily about love. They have “that for which Faust would barter all his wisdom”–youth.

Faust has learned from experience that prayers are in vain; God is not interested. Therefore he decides to pray to God’s adversary. At which point “a tall, dark, mysterious figure” appears, “from whom Faust at first shrinks back appalled. He has opened the lid to Hell! But the stranger is friendly, urbane, almost obsequious. ‘Speak out, old man,’ he says with a smile, ‘what is your will with me?’”

Everyone knows what happens next. The dapper stranger is of course Mephistopheles, and after much cajoling he gets the old man to tell him what he most wants. It is not glory, wealth, or a kingdom. “I would have what outvalues them all: my lost youth.” The charming devil hands Faust a parchment to sign. Faust trembles and hesitates, but the cunning demon produces a vision of a lovely and innocent maiden, Marguerite, at her spinning wheel, and whispers, “In one lightning stroke I shall give you back your youth…and that divine creature shall give you her heart.” Faust, by now “in a frenzy of eagerness,” signs the parchment, and “the years fall away from him like a cloak.”  For this viagric gift of time-travel, Faust has happily traded his soul.

Unlike Goethe’s Faust– a huge philosophical discourse between heaven and hell, good and evil, nature and science, and much else–Gounod’s opera narrows Faust’s desires: Here Faust yearns only for youth and its concomitant sexual attraction and activity. For this gift, he is willing to barter his soul, to accept whatever unknown eternal suffering is prescribed by his new master. A simple tale, familiar to readers and playgoers for centuries. Only here it is a tale told with ravishing music, a favorite of operagoers since its Paris premiere in 1859.

Apparently, Gounod’s old warhorse was too yesterday for director Des McAnuff, who was hired by Metropolitan Opera manager Peter Gelb to produce an updated version, performed now through January 2012 at the Met. McAnuff, director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and a Broadway regular (“Guys and Dolls,” “The Jersey Boys,” and coming soon, a revival of “Jesus Christ, Superstar”). McAnuff has transformed Faust into a disillusioned atomic scientist (J. Robert Oppenheimer was already “done” in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, but evidently the cliché of the guilt-ridden atomic scientist is a gift that keeps on giving).

Here is McAnuff himself, explaining, sort of:

I got to know the widow of the physicist and anthropologist Jacob Bronowski. One of the legendary stories about him is how he visited Nagasaki after the holocaust and chose to never practice physics again. That story had a very powerful effect on me. So the idea for Faust is to use the first half of the 20th century as the setting. We start at the end of World War II and then go back to Faust’s youth, which would be at the beginning of World War I. It seemed like a way of extracting the drama out of this material, making it pertinent, while remaining faithful to Gounod [!]. The idea is that this is all happening inside Faust’s head in a split second at the time of suicide. He attempts to recapture the innocence that, in fact, was lost with the detonation of the atom bomb.

When you hear words like “pertinent,” you know there’s a devil in the room. As to being “faithful to Gounod,” he has thrown Gounod out with the radioactive waste. And as to recapturing innocence, does he mean the innocence of World War I, the war to end all wars, in which an entire generation of young men was killed, often excruciatingly, by poison gas? Or does he mean the innocence of the years when Faust was supposedly working on his very own bomb? Later in the conversation, McAnuff says, “He [Faust] pursues innocence through Marguerite.” One can only scratch one’s head.

McAnuff pursues this murky “concept” (another word that causes blackboards to screech of their own accord) with the opening view of bombed-out ruins; a sterile, multi-tiered laboratory with the Met’s now-obligatory catwalk; the busy chorus dressed in white lab coats, carrying clipboards, sorting out beakers and bombs, while the shades of victim-refugees file past. On one occasion, part of the chorus become soldiers in the German uniforms of World War I, at one point carrying a gigantic balloon-puppet of a saluting soldier—a gimmick that nobody has yet deciphered. Video (of course) images run the gamut from a ravaged city to a puzzling image of cascading designer roses, to a mutilated baby (complete with silly sound effects of baby crying), to the mushroom cloud itself. One video is an enormous study of the hapless Marguerite’s face, an ironic homage to the true subject of the tale (in Germany, the opera used to be called Marguerite) and perhaps McAnuff’s own mea culpa.

McAnuff is so wedded to his concept that he gets entangled in all sorts of unintended consequences—and confusions for the audience. Thus, the steel-girder staging, essentially unchanged throughout the opera, serves as laboratory, town square, the interior of Marguerite’s “chaste and pure” house, and the church. But there is no escaping the essential religiosity of the opera, and even McAnuff cannot avoid the use of a huge cross to denote the (supposed) church. But what are we to make of Marguerite’s prayer in church, all the while accompanied by the ubiquitous chorus of white-coated lab scientists, standing in for Gounod’s demons? Or, even more weird, her ascension to heaven (up the stairs, of course), accompanied by the same white-coated scientists singing, “Sauvee!  Christ est ressuscite!”  Faust, being condemned, on the other hand, must join Mephistopheles –on a cheesy trap door to the basement.

This Faust was the Met’s best argument yet for concert opera. Not only was the production hugely wasteful of money, it was sinful in its waste of the gifts of three great singers, a dream trio comprising soprano Marina Poplavskaya, tenor Jonas Kaufmann, and bass Rene Pape. These world-class performers could hardly have been more crudely treated—indeed soprano Angela Gheorghiu had earlier cancelled her appearance as Marguerite, objecting to McAnuff’s production.

The Met, until Peter Gelb, had been fairly immune from the postmodern disease of Regietheater, German for the director’s substitution of himself for the composer or playwright, as in the case of McAnuff. There was also, alas, Puccini’s, or rather Luc Bondy’s Tosca, lighted entirely with a 40-watt bulb, or so it seemed. In the first act, Scarpia enters the presumed (too dimly lit to tell) church with his henchmen, sporting two requisite clichés: trenchcoats and dark glasses. Scarpia is menacingly lecherous, but in case the audience doesn’t get it, Bondy has him perform simulated sex with a statue of the Virgin Mary. In the second act, where Scarpia is supposed to be dining alone, he is accompanied by three prostitutes, who grope and stroke him and each other.

And there have been one or two other near-catastrophes at the Met, boding ill for the future. But here in Boston, we saw it all coming decades ago, when wunderkind Peter Sellars—now in his fifties but still as puerile—was putting his stamp on opera while still an undergraduate at Harvard. We watched in horror as our legendary Sarah Caldwell allowed Sellars, now a graduate, to run roughshod over Handel’s glorious Giulio Cesare, which became, under his direction, a sophomoric reductio ad absurdum taking place around a hotel swimming pool. In his characteristically “anti-imperialist” burlesque, Caesar, supposedly a caricature of Nixon, wears the already clichéd business suit; Cleopatra, in a Rastafarian beaded wig, suggestively embraces a pool float; Tolomeo, the unfortunate countertenor, sports a blue Speedo and headphones.

A bit later, at a summer festival at Castle Hill, the lovely coastal estate in Ipswich, north of Boston, Sellars  premiered his production of Mozart’s transcendent Cosi fan Tutte, coarsening it to what one critic called “a bitter joke.” Played out in “Despina’s Diner” in the fifties, the default time-setting along with the sixties, for “transgressive” opera directors ever since, this was the first of Sellars’s sack of Mozart’s three greatest operas, continuing with Le Nozze di Figaro set in the Trump Tower, and Don Giovanni, set in Harlem.

And the years have brought us only worse. As Heather Mac Donald writes:

I used to think that the most painful image I’d seen from a Regietheater opera production was from Peter Sellars’s Trump Tower version of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro: Cherubino, dressed in a football uniform, mechanically humping on his bed during “Non so piu cosa son.” That was a happier time. Now I have witnessed Figaro and the Count malevolently slashing Cherubino with a razor during “Non piu andrai,” smearing him with his own blood, callously shoving him into a straitjacket, violently stuffing a wad of cash into his mouth, and then leaving him barely conscious, slumped over in despair.

This, the recent Salzburg production directed by Claus Guth, is, as she says, “the full Clockwork Orange treatment of Mozart…the lightness and humanity which are at its core…replaced…with anger and bitterness.”

Finally, we watch helplessly as politics completely annihilates opera. In a perfectly straight-faced review of a new DVD from the August 2011 Opera News, we read:

An Israeli and a Palestinian, Omri Nitzan and Amir Nizar Zuabi, here co-direct Samson et Dalila as an indictment of occupation and terror. At the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp in 2009, Nitzan and Zuabi portray the Hebrews as modern-day Palestinians, the Philistines as modern-day Israelis. The curtain rises to a dancing-on-the-volcano scene: a motley mob of Hebrews, some wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh, cry out and chafe against their bondage, while, on a level above them, Philistine couples slow-dance in suits and party dresses.

And so on. Samson brings the opera to an end as he “straps on a dynamite vest and prepares to detonate it.” In light of such grotesquerie, we return to McAnuff’s Faust almost with affection, certainly with relief.  Critic and blogger James Jorden writes in Musical America that “there’s nothing to be learned from [the Met’s] Faust besides, perhaps, ‘never hire Des McAnuff to direct another opera under any circumstances.’”

But as we have seen, it could, and indeed might, be worse.

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