“Faust” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is, quite simply, the magnum opus of German literature. Little wonder that German-speaking composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Wagner and Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’ sister) set the scenes, songs, ballads and ideas contained in “Faust” to music.
It is with a French composer, however, Charles Gounod, that “Faust” has become immortal in the musical world as one of the most popular of operas.
Indeed, Gounod’s “Faust” is the opera that the “Phantom of the Opera” haunted, in both the original novel and, later, in the classic 1920s silent film. Happily, the Washington National Opera is now staging an outstanding production of the classic opera (phantom-free) at the Kennedy Center.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Dr. Faust is a brilliant medieval scholar whom we would now call existentially frustrated. Having mastered, according to Goethe, philosophy, law, medicine and even theology, he finds himself bored with the limitations of knowledge and indeed with life itself.
He thus summons Mephistopheles, an emissary of the devil (the devil himself, in some versions), who will grant Faust all of his wishes if our scholar will commit to later serving his infernal majesty in Hell.
Among Faust’s wishes are youth and love, especially the love of the beautiful and uncomplicated woman Marguerite.
Though Faust loves Marguerite, he soon commences to destroy her life, leading the audience to wonder who is the more evil: Mephistopheles or Faust? And is Marguerite’s purity of heart enough to save her and/or Faust from destruction?
The singing and acting in the production are superb. Erin Wall, who portrays the tragic figure of Marguerite, sings “The Jewell Song” (French title: “Je ris de me voir”). “Phantom of the Opera” silent film fans will recognize this as the song during which a chandelier falls.
Raymond Aceto plays Mephistopheles in superb voice, but it is his witty delivery of spoken lines, such as “with Satan, you must be more genteel” and “Don’t you like my plume in my hat and my sword at my side? I’m a real gentleman!” which makes his character sparkle.
Aceto is also very entertaining as he chases and dodges Dame Marthe (an equally witty and agile Deborah Nansteel, herself in fine voice) – all in a parody of Faust’s pursuit of Marguerite. Faust is well-represented by Marcelo Puente in his Washington National Opera debut, particularly towards the end of the opera as he expressively sings, gestures and cajoles Marguerite to escape while there is yet time.
Opera lovers will enjoy the popular “Soldiers’ Chorus,” one of the most memorable melodies of “Faust,” performed stirringly by the orchestra and large cast. The opera’s famous waltz is also performed. Alas, the sensuous Walpurgisnacht ballet music has been omitted in this production, as it often is from many stagings.
Given the Germanic story and French music, it is the director’s call in staging “Faust” whether to accentuate French operatic tradition or Goethe’s earlier literary retelling of the legend.
Perhaps this dilemma is summed up in a scene in Gounod’s opera in which the townspeople discuss whether they should drink “wine or beer.” “Long live wine!” is the response. As a result, wine, and the French musical tradition, usually win the day. In the current Washington National Opera production directed by Garnett Bruce, the German strands – and we suppose beer! – emerge as dominant, for references to German culture abound.
For example, when the tragic figure of Marguerite, movingly portrayed in voice and song by the talented Wall, sings the ballad of “The King of Thule,” she does so not alone at her spinning wheel as is traditional, but instead by reading it to children out of a story book – as if reading a Brothers Grimm fairy tale set in the dark Germanic woods.
Similarly, the scenery surrounding the cottage where Marguerite lives indeed evokes a somber Teutonic forest. Stage references to F.W. Murnau’s 1926 German Expressionist film “Faust – A German Folktale” are everywhere in the production: a globe at Faust’s first appearance, acrobats performing at a festival, Faust throwing down the cross in rejection of God and the lattice windows of Marguerite’s house all appear to reference the Weimar Republic-era film. More broadly, German versions of “Faust” often contain a play within a play, and in this production there is a play during the festival which foreshadows what will be the eventual fate of Mephistopheles, struck down by God.
In summation, this reviewer strongly recommends the Kennedy Center’s magical production of “Faust.” The show is of highest quality in terms of both performances and staging. Culturally, it draws upon the best of both French opera stylistics and the story’s Germanic cultural heritage. In his pact with Mephistopheles, Faust maintains, according to Goethe, that one of his conditions is to have a moment so sublime that he will “ask the fleeting moment to remain, for it is so fair.” For those interested in taking this operatic ride through magic and tragedy, the moment will not last, as this production of “Faust” ends its run soon on March 30!