by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE
“Music,” the saying goes, “is the language of the soul.” But when that soul is sold to the Devil, as in Charles-Francois Gounod’s opera Faust, even some of the most beautiful musical lines ever written could not prevent the hell-bound downward spiral. In a slowly unraveling demonic mode, Portland Opera Association’s artistic forces presented an interdisciplinary Faustian wonderment on opening night last Friday at Keller Auditorium.
Setting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s massive Faust to music, let alone opera, is a huge undertaking. Gounod took several passes at getting his produced. When it was finally tweaked to his satisfaction in 1859, distilled to the dramatic essence, the five act opera went 19th century viral and has since become one of the most often staged operas of all time. New York’s Metropolitan Opera opened its doors in 1883 with a production of Gounod’s Faust.
You might think Faust is the only reason his name is known, but wait: 1) Who superimposed a Catholic “Ave Maria” chant over the top of a Bach C major prelude to create one of the most loved works of all time; 2) Who wrote the ‘National Anthem’ of Vatican City (the Papal Hail to the Chief, as it were); 3) Who wrote the original theme to the Alfred Hitchcock television program? The answer to all three: Charles Gounod.
Gounod was born in Paris almost exactly 200 years before the June 17 closing performance of POA’s 2018 Faust production. He received composition awards in his early years at Paris Conservatory and in Rome. A devoted Catholic and family man who loved the music of Palestrina and Bach, Gounoud was an admirer and friend of Berlioz. He wrote symphonies that are not widely performed, a large number of choral works and one other opera of note, Romeo and Juliet.
With a handful of major singing roles, large mixed chorus and large orchestra, the story (libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre) is a balanced and dramatic work. An artist, Faust, his body and creativity degraded by old age, is contemplating suicide. He is enraged by young women outside singing of nature and God and calls out for Mephistopheles, who takes it from there.
Crossing Faust’s pathway to doom are Marguerite, paragon of feminine purity; Siebel, young boy, love-struck over Marguerite; Wagner, a soldier off to war; Valentin, also a soldier, and brother of Marguerite; and Marthe, a matronly friend of Marguerite. And for all except Marthe, Gounod has written arias that have become staples in solo vocal literature.
It wasn’t just the language of music, however, that told the tale at Keller Auditorium. The prodigious visual stagescape was the collaborative work of a troupe of stage-craft artists taking their artistic vision from California sculptor John Frame. (Read Paul Maziar’s ArtsWatch interview with Frame.) David Allen Moore (projection design) targeted images, some 3D, onto the stage with eerie precision. Vita Tzykun (set and costume), Duane Schuler (lighting) and stage director Kevin Newbury. colored, textured and shaded the drama.
In the major roles, we saw Marguerite, the object of Faust’s desire, depending on a crutch for most of the first two acts, until, with the help of Mephistopheles, she finds the casket (original word) of jewels and, aided by the Devil, arises unaided, dancing with joy. Gounod did not write Marguerite as a person with physical challenges. In fact, he didn’t give her much of anything except some beautifully naive musical moments and then ** pow!** bedazzled by jewels, unwanted motherhood, guilt and disgrace. In a brilliant turnabout, the idea of making Marguerite yearn for physical vitality – more than baubles, more than lust – places her on equal footing with her male counterpart, Faust, giving substance to her and to the fulfillment of her dreams. It was also a brilliant trigger prop for her switch from naïve to wanton Marguerite (and back again). The crutch was a window to her soul.
Perhaps the most innovative ideas along that line were the four Mephistophelean “mini-me’s,” humanoid demons, straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, who haunted and stalked the main characters (Faust and Marguerite) throughout the opera. They were functional, moving set pieces, holding props; they were evil little Jiminy Crickets; they were a binding thread throughout the opera.
Costumes were buoyantly, highly colored. Plaid was prominent, Faust in a bright blue outfit and Mephistpheles in vested zoot-suit. The soldier costumes, including Valentin, were curiously pseudo Franco-Prussian War, which lent a reverse timelessness to the visual element. A varied timeframe somewhat support’s John Frame’s philosophy of indeterminate time.
Most of the multifaceted stage production supported the storyline and maintained continuity. The projected images of the flowers (so much a part of the story) blooming and wilting as does love. The sassy and sarcastic skeletal images of the famous “Soldier’s Chorus” in Act IV added a rebellious dimension to the Gounod story line but kept us in the story (and awake). In contrast, however, the handheld shop lights complete with electrical cords during a courting song were a puzzlement and a distraction. Not to say that the lengthy Gounod couldn’t use a little distraction from time to time. In fact, it weighs in at about 3 hours and 30 minutes, including intermissions.
The placement of Marguerite’s bed chamber during the seduction scene in Act III was also a curiosity. The quartet sang in the garden, then Mephistopheles recited “look, she opens her window” and there is no window because there is actually no inhabitable home on stage. (Indeed a “chaste demeure”/pure home). It’s a bit like Romeo, in the balcony scene, calling out “what light from yonder window breaks” and having Juliet sitting in the bay windows at the downstairs breakfast nook.
The singing was opulent, sturdy, glowing. Leading soprano Angel Blue (Marguerite) has a perfect voice for this role, and many others to come. Not a light little soubrette voice, this is a three tool singer: great tensile strength and flexibility (much needed for the famous “Jewel Song”) and ravishing high notes.
Faust himself, Jonathan Boyd (POA’s 2012 Candide and Tom in 2015‘s The Rake’s Progress) easily coped with the challenges of his own high notes, and his bright, vibrant voice was untrammeled through the entire production. His physical presence, for example in the opening scenes where he mimics the 8mm-Movietone effects being projected behind him, was forceful.
And our other main character, Mephistopheles (Alfred Walker in his POA debut) brought an appropriately dark and threatening lustre to his role. Surprisingly, it was announced before the final two acts that Mr. Walker was “under the weather”; if that’s what he sounds like when he’s ailing, I’d very much like to hear him ‘belt’ when he’s in fine fettle. His “Le veau d’or” (Song of the Calf of Gold) was commanding.
It was a joy to hear two of the supporting cast, Edward Parks as Valentin and Kate Farrar, sing with conviction and great vocal beauty in, respectively, “O sainte medaille” (Oh holy medal) as Siebel “Faites lui mes aveux” (Make her my confession, carry my wishes),
Other solid supporting roles included Shi Li as the short lived Wagner who sings “Song of the Rat,” and Angela Niederloh as Marguerite’s matronly neighbor Marthe Schwertlein who is widowed in one moment and flirting with the Devil in the next.
The orchestra is chock full of fine musicians. This is a richly scored, French romantic grand opera, in full. All of the winds get their due and their numerous solo passages were pristine. Some hiccups in moments of transition left a feeling that at times, director George Manahan was chasing strays. But when Doug Schneider laid it all out on the organ in the final scene, all stops opened to eternity.
And where one spends eternity is the ultimate question in Faust. Some previous literary sub-contractors with the Devil — in Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, in Damn Yankees, in Devil’s Advocate — have found ways to break the contract, to foil the Devil. The will be no redemption for this Faust. He’s going down. But Marguerite, though she does not survive the ordeal, calls upon the angels “Anges pur, anges radieux” (angels pure and radiant) and, quite rapidly in this production, vocally soars her way to heaven.
Nothing so extravagant a fate for Faust. He is simply given his own demonic mask, not even a grand one, and steps in line behind the four minis shuffling toward Hell behind the boss of underworld. Chillingly simplistic.
This iconic opera has withstood countless interpretations because it can, and it should. This new Portland Opera / Lyric Opera of Chicago co-production is evidence that much can be layered upon the footprints of Goethe and Gounod. Faust was written in the later-middle period of French Grand Opera, a genre which embraced scenic sensationalism appropriate to the technologies (volcanos, on-stage conflagrations, multi trap doors). In this vein, the POA production is upholding the traditional.
Faustian purists might experience some jarring moments…wonderfully, provocative, eye-popping visual stimuli intertwined with the real soul of the work, Gounod’s beloved music. This bold and innovative offering is not a pact with the devil. It’s a pact with the current and future Portland Opera audiences.
Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.
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