Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gounod's opera Faust: compare to other works on Goethe's "problem"


The “problem” of Faust – essentially that one “sells his soul” in order to know good and evil, has been set to music numerous times, by Liszt, Mahler, Boito, Charles Gounod, and even Ferruccio Busoni.

Deutsch Grammophone (on its own, without a movie industry distributor) offers a DVD of the 1985 Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus of Charles Gounod’s “Faust,” conducted by Erich Binder. Francisco Araiza plays Faust, and Gabriela Benackova is Marguerite; Ruggero Raimondi is the Devil. The five acts are “compressed” into three with a few cuts, and the opera runs slightly under three hours. I don’t know why DG needed to split the DVD (full screen) onto two discs for this length of show; the second DVD runs just 70 minutes with about 8 minutes of applause. That reminds me of my awareness of a consumer back in the 1960s of just how much music companies could cram onto one side of a record (because of “inner groove distortion”), in the days before it was common to get Beethoven’s Ninth on just one disc.

I have always enjoyed the heaven storming climaxes at the end of the Liszt Faust Symphony (male chorus only), the Mahler Symphony #8 ("Symphony of a Thousand", a nickname Mahler did not approve) and Arrigo Boito’s opera, whose “Angelic Chorus” appears twice, the second with a majestic climax to the opera, even as “Satan whistles”. I saw that back in 1996 at the Kennedy Center and Samuel Ramey had plenty of fun with the Witches’ Sabbath scene. Boito’s “Mefistofele” was performed at age 26 (it probably was a teenage conception), seems to come from the “white hot passions” of youth, and provoked so much controversy in Italy that police closed it down.

Gounod’s conception (called simply "Faust"), while large scale, seems more lightweight in comparison most of the time. The ballet and march music is the most famous, but the music becomes melodramatic only toward the end, with fabulous French organ passages and the famous duet with its rising lilting theme. The visual impact of the final scene with the cloaked headless men (including a corpse from the coffin) leading Faust away to his demise is striking (it called to mind Washington Irving's "headless horseman"). The opera actually ends on a quiet chord (expanding and then diminishing), after the last choral climax; it doesn’t aim for the heavenstorming closes of some of the other romantic settings. The opening orchestra prelude is rather like a symphonic slow movement.

Visually, the most interesting images in the opera are the Golden Calf (to be used by Arnold Schoenberg in Moses and Aaron) and, at the end, the guillotine, giving the opera a certain political meaning.

I think a “modern” concept of the Faust problem is having to sell out on one’s own personal values to meet practical needs of other people, sometimes to get along, maybe even to survive.

Picture: A taste of David Lynch, perhaps. (Or maybe Andy Warhol.)

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