Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Dueling hells

     "Faust" by Charles Gounod opened Saturday at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Tuesday 100 lucky winners of the Sun-Times "Night at the Opera" contest will enjoy it with me. It's one of my favorite operas—I love the music—and this production has a new twist: the old guy  who sells his soul to the devil is no longer a philosopher, but an artist. Noted contemporary artist John Frame does the scenery, some intriguing short films and most delightfully, masks for Mephistopheles's little helpmates.
     This is the third Lyric production of "Faust" that I've seen. The first was in the early 1990s, when great bass Sam Ramey owned the devil role. The second was a decade ago, when the "Lyric" presented not one, but two "Fausts," a non-coincidence I couldn't help but explore in this 2009 column. 

     When this column is done, hot from the oven and ready to be served, I go over it one last time looking for repetitions, which irk me. A word can be repeated powerfully ("Yes I said yes I will yes") but it also can foul an otherwise serviceable sentence. ("I set the chemistry set on the table and was all set.") 
     Thus it seemed odd to me — if to no one else — that the Lyric Opera's upcoming 2009-10 season includes both "Faust," by Gounod, and "The Damnation of Faust," by Berlioz. 
     Two Fausts? How did that happen? There are hundreds of operas to chose from. 
     " 'Faust' was the first one we picked," said Lyric General Director Bill Mason. Scheduling operas is a delicate mix of art and commerce, based on what singers are available, what sets are free, and achieving the right blend of crowd-pleasing favorites and cutting-edge new productions. 
     "We wanted to do a Berlioz," said Mason, and they puzzled over which one. "The Trojans"? "A monster," said Mason. Others were considered and rejected before "Damnation" was suggested. 
     The coincidence did give them pause (that's a relief — I'd hate to think they first noticed after they printed up the posters). 
     "We thought, 'should we have two Faust stories in the same season?' " said Mason. "But the more we talked about it, the more we thought it was interesting and a good idea. You've got this great epic by Goethe, you see these two French composers, what elements they chose to use and how they fashioned their libretto out of it." 
     The basic story is the same — aging scholar Faust sells his soul to the devil to regain lost youth and score a pretty maiden. How they handle the tale, however, differs from the first moment. 
     "In 'Faust,' in the first scene, Faust sees a vision of Marguerite, falls in love with her and immediately consigns his soul to the devil," said Mason. 
     "As men will do. . . " I ventured. 
     "But in the Berlioz, Faust doesn't agree to give his soul to the devil until the very end when he sees she's in prison to be executed. The first one is pure lust, the second a more altruistic thing." 
     Mason pointed out that there is a third major Faust opera — "Mefistofele" by Boito -- and it would not have been unimaginable to include that one as well. 
     "The infernal hat trick," I said. 
     "I wish we could have done that," he said. "That would have been fun, too." 
     Too bad—can't you just see the posters? The Lyric's Satanic Season. 
                                         —originally published in the Sun-Times, June 1, 2009

1 comment:

  1. Lyric has done the Boito Mephistofele a few times. A lot of big choruses. A show stopping area for the soprano (Altra Notte in Fondo al Mare). And, of course, a bass who can dominate the stage -- In Lyric's case Boris Christoph and Samuel Ramey.



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