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The devil of legend

October 13, 2008

  • date
    October 13, 2008
  • article type
    Press
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    Opera Carolina News

The devil of legend

Do you ever watch the machinations of people in politics, business or your workplace and wonder if someone has sold his soul in pursuit of his goals?

The centuries-old legend of Faust, who made a deal with the devil to regain youth and vigor, still resonates within us. And it will resonate in the Belk Theater starting Saturday, when Charles Gounod's musical version of the story opens Opera Carolina's season.

There was a time that “Faust,” which centers on the rejuvenated man's romance with the sweet young Marguerite, was probably the most popular opera of all. The likes of “La Boheme” and “La Traviata” have overtaken it, but “Faust” is still in the top 20 – really. A survey of North American opera companies puts “Faust” at No. 18 in number of performances, right behind “Aida.”

Let's look at its attractions.

France meets Italy

Like Georges Bizet's “Carmen,” this is a French opera that has some Italian blood in its veins. “Faust” celebrates the theatrical charisma of full-throated melodies, from the aged Faust's eager anticipation of release from earthly disappointments to the surging prayer that wins Marguerite a spot in heaven after Faust and Mephistopheles – as the devil is called here – leads her astray. Mephistopheles' flamboyant and sharp-tongued numbers not only give him larger-than-life stature, but show what he thinks of the humans he manipulates. Faust's expansive aria celebrating the girl he has just met sets off a luxurious love scene.

Sinners and saints

One of the dangers about operas featuring the devil or heathens is that everyone else onstage can seem a little boring – because the sinners are having so much fun. Gounod's music saves “Faust” from that. When Marguerite's brother leaves for war, his love for his sister pours out in music that radiates noble spirit. The glitter of Marguerite's “Jewel Song,” her response to a gift that helps Faust woo her, sets her innocence in opposition to the devil's conniving. But after she's caught in the devil's trap, Gounod envelops her with the opera's most powerful music – Judgment Day explosions built on snarling drums and roaring brasses.

Femmes fatales

Despite its popularity, “Faust” is almost never performed in its entirety. But Opera Carolina will reinstate one often-cut scene: the Walpurgis Night, which puts Faust and Mephistopheles into the revelries of witches and goblins. In hopes of distracting Faust from his thoughts of Marguerite, Mephistopheles conjures up visions of Cleopatra and other femmes fatales – and Gounod supplies voluptuous music. But Faust thinks only of Marguerite. The scene shows that he “really is remorseful” about seducing her, Opera Carolina's James Meena says.

Nightmare

“There are a million possibilities” for how to bring an opera to life, stage director Bernard Uzan said. In his staging of the Church Scene – in which Marguerite, despondent about being seduced by Faust, seeks solace but finds torment – Marguerite is surrounded by goings-on such as never take place in a real church. Some audiences, he says, find it startling. His rationale: The scene is Marguerite's nightmare, induced by the devil. “This is not a real church,” Uzan explained. “It's a trick of Mephistopheles.”

More than it seems

If you take “Faust” at face value, it's a love story with diabolical influence. But Opera Carolina's Meena sees more. “People who just take it on the surface are missing the best part of the piece,” he said. He thinks “Faust” really describes “the relationship between man and God, and the choices men make.” Faust has spent his life trying to use knowledge to became like a god. With his life near its end, Meena said, “he doesn't choose to turn to God – he does the opposite.” The opera shows where that leads.

Seeking security

Opera Carolina hopes the popularity of “Faust” will pay off at the box office. Especially with Charlotte hitting its “most recent economic pothole in the road,” Meena said – referring to the Wachovia takeover – Opera Carolina is looking for security. If sales maintain the pace they've set, Meena said, the company is likely to hit or surpass its box-office target.

These days, an opera company might sell its soul for that.

By Steven Brown
sbrown@charlotteobserver.com