Thursday, February 5, 2009

Devilishly Good

By Mitchell

One doesn’t normally think of opera as adversarial sport, but there it is: oftentimes, the audience is pitted against the director, and there can be only one winner. Either the audience leaves happy with a production that is pleasing, lyrical and traditional (and, say some, hopelessly “old fashioned”), or the production team emerges triumphant with a “visionary” staging that is “relevant,” “bold” and “provocative.” (This kind of production often fails to, shall we say, move large numbers of the audience – except to the exits- to which the director will respond that such patrons “fail to understand,” and must be “educated” to appreciate such artistic vision.)

And so it was with some trepidation that we approached last week’s Minnesota Opera performance of Gounod’s Faust. The production was being directed by choreographer Doug Verone, who had last worked with the Opera on their Elephant Man of a few seasons ago, and would feature members of his dance troupe. Their goal, according to artistic director Dale Johnson, was to make the music breathe, so to speak, through the dancers’ movements. Well, one can hardly be blamed for being apprehensive, especially on the heels of the Mark Morris-produced Orfeo ed Euridice (to which I alluded in the comments section here).

So just what kind of night would it be? Who was going to come out on top?

Happily, one can report that both audience and creator were the big winners, in this lively, crowd-pleasing and lyrical performance. Verone did indeed have the Midas touch, as his choreography lent a sublime, evocative accent to the enduring story of the aged philosopher Dr. Faust and his bargain with the devil – youth, romance and riches, all for the amazingly low price of one soul. Who could pass up a bargain like that?

Kyle Ketelsen, who was so good as the devilish Don Giovanni of a few seasons ago, was wonderful in the scene-stealing role of Méphistophélès, and Judith Howarth, who shone in a previous production of La Traviata, was likewise luminescent as Marguerite, the innocent girl looking for love but getting more than she bargained for. Paul Groves, in the title role, took some time to warm up, and his tenor voice occasionally reached the balcony with some difficulty; nonetheless, he well portrayed the agony of a man at the end of life, who can’t shake the nagging suspicion that this bargain isn’t all it’s supposed to be cracked up to be. Jean-Yves Ossonce, leading the orchestra in the pit, provided a fine handling of Gounod’s lush music, and the combination of Andromache Chalfant’s sets and Jane Cox’s lighting created an appropriate atmosphere.

This production succeeded on many levels – one of Verone’s expressed desires was to bring some life to an opera that can, truth be told, be somewhat static and stagy. He also wanted to bring out the whimsy and liveliness inherent in Gounod’s story. He accomplished both through the effective use of a troupe of eight dancers – four to play the handmaids to Marguerite, and four to play Méphistophélès’ henchmen. They did indeed compliment the music, providing an accent, rather than a distraction, to the melodies flowing from the pit. It was as if the music itself was using the dancers as paintbrushes, their movements casting large swatches of color across the stage. No special effects-laden movie could have done any better. As well, the Walpurgisnacht ballet sequence from Act V, which is often omitted, is presented here in all its glorious, decadent intensity.

Legend has it that demons evolved from dogs, and Méphistophélès’ apprentice demons did indeed resemble a dog pack in the way they hovered around old Scratch, constantly moving and circling, their gestures at once both grotesque and fluid. (At one point they even make a noise in unison that sounded very much like a howl.), and James Schuette’s costumes should be praised for the subtle accents of black fur, underscoring the dog-like origins. They might resemble puppies eager to please, but they are demons, after all, and their underlying menace was never very far below the surface. The Devil, of course, never likes to get his hands dirty, not when he can rely on someone else to do the messy stuff.

And that leads me to a couple of observations on the story itself. Literature and real life both testify to the Devil’s immense ability to charm, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Méphistophélès’ constant flattery of Faust – unctuous without being totally subservient. You are the master, Méphistophélès reminds him, and I am here but to serve you. All the while, of course, he schemes to manipulate Faust into ever-more untenable situations.

Johnson also mentioned in the pre-performance talk that Verone was fascinated as to why Faust, at the opera’s beginning, chooses to renounce his faith in God and turn instead to the Devil for consolation. It is a dramatic, fateful and ultimately fatal decision, and one that causes us all to wonder. Why look to the Devil for what we must know is only temporary (and shallow) comfort, rather than the eternal truth of God? Is it that we have always demanded quick fixes to our needs? Do we have so little belief in our own worth that we think our souls are of such minimal value? Or, as Burgess Meredith so smoothly suggested in a classic Twilight Zone episode, do we consider ourselves to be too grown up and sophisticated to believe in something so outdated as the Devil?

At the opera’s climax Marguerite, kneeling on the gallows facing death for killing her illegitimate (with Faust) child, puts her life entirely at the disposal of Jesus’ mercy. (Anges purs, anges radieux), to which a chorus of angels respond that her faith has saved her (Sauvee! Christ est ressuscité). There is no white-washing by anyone involved in the production, no attempt to minimize the intense religious message in this scene (indeed, there is a bevy of religious symbolism to be seen throughout the performance).

And so while Marguerite is saved, Faust is whisked by Méphistophélès to eternal damnation. A happy ending? Well, in typical opera fashion, death is the ever-present spectre as the final curtain falls. But in this case it is the redemptive power of Jesus which carries the day and so, as a reminder that as we die with Christ so too shall we be raised with Him, this ending can’t help but be a hopeful one.

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