What is your soul worth? The Bible tells us that it is the eternal part in us and asks the question what will you profit if you gain the whole world but lose your soul? Presumably not much. When King Richard III lost his horse in battle, he offered his kingdom for a horse and not his soul.
In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More is convicted on the perjured evidence of Richard Rich. As Rich exits the courtroom, More notices a chain of office around his neck. He is informed that Rich has been appointed Attorney General for Wales. More comments: “Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…But for Wales!”
Which brings me to Charles Gounod’s opera Faust and the famous sale of one’s soul to the Devil for sensual and sexual pleasure. We may assume that pleasures of the flesh and eventually love are worth more than Wales but let’s leave that topic alone.
The Metropolitan Opera streamed its 2011 production for our entertainment during the pandemic. This week’s productions are titled Changing the Scene: Updated Settings for Classic Operas. You will find Rigoletto in Las Vegas, Cosi fan Tutte in an amusement park on a boardwalk in the 1950’s and Agrippina in a very modern setting.
Des McAnuff, the then Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival directed a new production of Faust in 2011 and he updated the setting to the first half of the 20th century and made numerous changes. More about this further down.
The production featured a stellar cast. Jonas Kaufmann, one of the best tenors in the business sings an outstanding Faust. Kaufmann has the vocal breadth, beauty and strength to deliver a remarkable Faust. He is a talented actor as well and is a pleasure to hear and watch.
Soprano Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite displays ample evidence of her vocal beauty and her acting talent. She looks naïve and innocent but falls for the jewels and approach of Faust as directed by Mephistopheles. She has the main role of the opera and is highly effective in all aspects from happiness to distress and gives an overall superb performance.
Bass Rene Pape as Mephistopheles is a debonair, impeccably dressed man about town who never wears anything but a well-tailored suit. He may be Satan but he is well disguised. Few singers can equal the sonority of Pape’s voice.
Canadian mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier sings the pants role Siebel and baritone Russell Braun sings Valentin and both give highly creditable performances.
McAnuff’s vision and indeed version of Faust is not lacking in imagination. He sets the opera in a laboratory and Faust is made into a nuclear physicist. The set by Robert Brill consists of scaffolding, iron stairs and hanging steel items that could be bombs in the making. Could this be the laboratory where the atomic bomb was made? There are numerous references to natural beauty, a scene in front of Marguerite’s house and inside it but all of that is subsumed in the original conception of the lab.
One can appreciate the imaginative leap from the 16th century myth to grim 20th century sterility but there is a disconnect in the process. Mephistopheles becomes a mere magician and there is no hint of satanic evil. The suave devil is just playing a game as was Faust initially when all he wanted was some fun until he fell in love with Marguerite. One’s reaction to updated settings is subjective but it works best when it expands our understanding and appreciation of the opera without disconnecting it from its essential roots.
The Met Orchestra was conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin
The 2011 production of Faust by Charles Gounod with libretto by Jules Barbier & Michel Carré was streamed on June 8, 2021, by the Metropolitan Opera Company. For more information visit: www.metopera.org