Monday, June 7, 2010

Make a Deal with the Devil

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For my wife’s birthday, I took her to the opening night of Faust at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House this last Saturday. Charles Gounod’s operatic rendition of Goethe’s Faust involves some new characters and plot revisions to the original play, but the music and storyline of this opera still proves to be fantastic a century and a half later. The performer who played Mephistopheles definitely stole the show Saturday night, and for a story about a man selling his soul to the devil the dialogue turned out to have a substantial amount of comical relief throughout each act. A winning combination of magnificent sets, jovial plots lines, and truly terrific singing made this production of Faust a worthwhile experience to say the least.

For those of you unfamiliar with Faust, the story essentially revolves around an aging professor who sells his soul to the devil in order to have youth again and success in love. The devil shows up, often in very comical and unexpected ways, and gives Faust his wish. In addition, Faust meets a young woman named Marguerite who is the ideal of chastity, beauty, and virtue. Needless to say, the two fall in love. The devil, as Mephistopheles, frequently gives Faust help in any way he asks, often putting his powers to both good and ill uses throughout the story. Probably what really makes this opera unique, compared to Goethe or Marlowe’s versions of “Faust,” is that the devil in this rendition is so candid about his intentions and yet also so friendly to the point that he really seems to want to help Faust (so long as he gets his soul in the process). All in all, it makes for an interesting relationship amongst the primary characters.  

This is the second opera I’ve seen, the first being Il Trovatore, and although I very much like both they are quite different. If they were flavors, Il Trovatore would be vanilla and Faust would be chocolate. Il Trovatore offers traditional, full-throated opera in Italian, whereas Faust is a more tongue-and-cheek, devil-may-care performance in French. No pun intended. Both of course had fantastic music, and the symphony deserves as much credit as the actors onstage. If you haven’t had a chance to attend an opera in your area I suggest you go out and see one. Their mixture of story, music, and showmanship really brings multiple art-forms together in a truly enthralling experience.

Charles Gounod, creator of the opera Faust