It’s four and a half years since The Other Half and I started going to the Royal Opera House fairly regularly. We’d been to the English National Opera on a handful of occasions – triggered by being able to get into Terry Gillian’s Damnation of Faust – but nursed a view that we’d ideally like to see operas in their original languages.
Since we started doing just that, one of the things I’ve learned is that it wasn’t just Wagner and Verdi who wrote long operas.
And one of the conundrums I’ve faced is how I can love opera so much when so many of the characters – not least from 19th and early 20th century works – are so unsympathetic.
Last Thursday was a perfect illustration of both points: to start the Easter weekend, we’d got tickets for Gounod’s Faust – a work that neither of us was familiar with, although both of us know the general Faust legend.
Obviously Goethe didn’t have a monopoly on telling the story and indeed, Gounod’s version takes only that which would suit a sentimental French audience, according to Rupert Christiansen in the Faber Pocket Guide to Opera.
Faust is an elderly scholar realising that his dedication to the job has cost him happiness and love (and coded within that, lust). He’s full of regret. Méphistophélès appears and offers him a second chance – if he’ll subsequently serve Méphistophélès in hell. Faust agrees.
Faust sees Marguerite, whose brother, Valentin, has just left for war. He falls in love/lust and is helped to win the virginal naif by Méphistophélès.
Then, after Faust has seemingly abandoned his pregnant love, Valentin arrives home home from war, wanting only to tell everyone about it. He learns what’s happened to Marguerite and challenges her lover. Faust, with help from Méphistophélès, kills him. As Valentin dies, he curses … Marguerite.
The pregnant Marguerite – gone bonkers in her abandonment – gives birth, kills the child and awaits the guillotine. Méphistophélès teases Faust, but then helps him enter her cell, with the possibility of aiding her escape. Marguerite remembers her love for him and decides not to flee. Faust sees her soul ascend to heaven. He, meanwhile, is abandoned by Méphistophélès.
Point one – it’s overlong. The third act in particular is self-indulgent – which is not to say that the music is bad, because it isn’t. It’s just too long. We reach a point where Gounod is simply repeating himself: albeit tunefully.
Point two – Marguerite has little real depth as a character, but in terms of our sympathy, she’s a victim of a patriarchal situation that says how she must behave. Interestingly, her neighbour Marthe is an older woman and a widow, and seems to be able to be as sexual as she likes without anyone going dotty, which suggests that sexual mores are not fixed simply in that society.
Clearly, Marguerite is the victim here and we sympathise with her – as much as her rather one-dimensional character allows.
Next up – Valentin. Well, what an arse. Comes home from war, full of himself, and then blames his sister because she took a lover and he cannot control his jealousy.
Okay: I do actually know that this was penned in the late 19th century, but he’s still a tit. He probably killed people, yet he’s offended that his sister has had a lover and got knocked up. And when his own impetuous stupidity leads to his death, he blames her!
So: not a shred of sympathy there.
For Faust, I can have a modicum of sympathy. In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann rather more adroitly explores the idea of a life spent in dedicated work and the regret it creates, but without creating victims. Here, while one can sympathise with that aspect of Faust’s situation, one cannot sympathise with is his subsequent decision to abandon Marguerite.
Which brings us to Méphistophélès.
Frankly, I’m in love (lust) with Méphistophélès. No crap ‘morals’. No hypocrisy. Since my own faith fled – late, unexpectedly and without any real challenge, I have found myself considering the idiocy of putting the issue of who and how you shag (assuming consenting adults) over whether you lie, con, cheat etc.
I know which I consider to be what morality is about.
I would also suggest that, if god really does exist, then the devil – Méphistophélès – is going to have the best parties and the best discussions.
The ROH has assembled a magnificent cast for the fifth reveal of David McVicar’s production, which is set on the even of the Franco-Prussian War.
Michael Fabiano is a wonderful Faust, while Irina Lungo wrings as much from Marguerite as I suspect is possible. Stéphane Degout is as good as Valentin can be and Carole Wilson deserves praise for her earthy Marthe.
But what made my evening was Erwin Schrott’s Méphistophélès. A deliciously naughty, witty, sexy performance – not least in the penultimate act, when McVicar has Méphistophélès appear as a queen; in full drag.
Even in 2019, it is a fabulously subversive moment that sums up why, given the choice, I’d opt for Méphistophélès every time. And Schrott is not only a superb bass-baritone, but also a wonderful actor, who makes his role every bit as dangerous and as enticing as Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Show.