Saturday, November 26, 2011

Goethe, Gounod, and Faust

"French composers love those German sufferers that then they can bring to joy." --Jonas Kaufmann (Opera News interview, 2011)

"Die unbegreiflich hohen Werke / sind herrlich wie am ersten Tag." - Faust 249-250

Delacroix, "Mephistopheles devant Faust," 1826
Gounod's Faust was the first work performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, in 1883. The 1859 opera enjoyed an almost unrivaled popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; George Bernard Shaw famously complained that a professional critic in London had to spend approximately a decade of a twelve-year career listening to Faust, and that he himself had been nearly blinded by prolonged exposure to Mephistopheles' red spotlight (his full Faust-assessment can be found in this book.) In Gaston Leroux' Phantom of the Opera, Faust is the opera chosen to represent both vocal virtuosity and dangerous sensuality (a connection emphasized in this film adaptation.) In Jean Renoir's film about WWI, Grand Illusion
, it is presented as plausible that "Anges Purs" would be known by every French officer. Critical interpretations of the opera often cluster around the question: how did Faust achieve such status?

Peter Conrad, in A Song of Love and Death, has called Faust the opera glorifying Mammon, proclaiming in savage triumph that the golden calf still stands. In this interpretation, petty bourgeois society provides the determining social framework--materially ambitious, hypocritically moralistic. In this interpretation, Faust's new identity as a voluptuary determines the character of the opera. Operatic Subjects, likewise, sees Mephistopheles as fully at home in the world which professes to scorn and fear him, "un vrai gentilhomme." Sandra Corse interprets the Church Scene as one in which the judgment of the clergy and society is filtered through Marguerite's disturbed psyche to appear before the audience as the gloating of the devil and his minions. (An intriguing idea indeed; not one that has been staged, as far as I know.) Steven Huebner, on the other hand (in The Operas of Charles Gounod) sees a contrast drawn between the intolerance of Valentin in judging Marguerite and the compassion of the bystanders.

Juergen Schlaeder notes that, in the years before 1830, Faust was appreciated in France as a complex and contradictory figure, a model for many who were, like the philosopher, determined to engage the world with received wisdom and personal experience, refusing indifference or blindness to the inner workings of society. Profound social and economic changes in the Second Empire, Schlaeder argues,  were reflected in the mid-century interpretations of Faust which made Marguerite central to the story (in performance, the opera was often known as "Marguerite," and in Gounod's drama, she is the least static of the characters.) The rise of a bourgeoisie bolstered by a consumer culture that was encouraged from the top of the political hierarchy contributed to a dangerous blending of monde and demi-monde, with ambition and anxiety never far apart. David McVicar's smart, sexy production for the ROH (DVD) acknowledges this, and presents both Valentin's career as a soldier and his rage at Marguerite's 'transgression' as stemming from anxieties about the social body. Corinna Herr also takes up this theme, examining Gretchen/Marguerite as the femme faible counterpart to Medea; the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fascination with these characters on the operatic stage, Herr argues, stemmed largely from the fact that both their acts of infanticide could be rationalized within the context of the drama, violently contradicting Rousseau's theory of "the nature of women."

So why is Faust back? The relevance of its critique of consumerism could hardly be more apparent, of course, and the tragedies of jingoism are also very much with us ("Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux.") But there remains what, in German, is still called the Gretchenfrage: what about religion? An article in the November issue of Opera News asks plaintively what twenty-first century audiences are to make of Faust, when sin and salvation are, for a majority of the audience, assumed not to be a priority or preoccupation? Goethe asked nearly the same question. When a witch calls Mephistopheles Satan, he rebukes her: "That name was consigned to books of fairy tales long ago. But," he adds, "it didn't do humanity any good. They've freed themselves of the Evil One, but evil still is with them." (My own prose translation.) Surely that problem is still very much with us. Des McAnuff's Faust, in figuring the (anti-)hero as involved with the creation of the atom bomb, seems to me a promising concept. As Faust says in his opening monologue (my translation again): "So yes, I am wiser than all these vain men--doctors, professors, clerks and priests--and plagued by no doubts or scruples, fearing neither hell nor the Devil. But I have lost all joy; I harbor no delusions that I know what's right, or that I could teach anything that could convert people, or improve their lot." ...Damn. How this existential despair will sit with Gounod's music is another question, and reviews from the production's run at ENO tended to the conclusion that it didn't do so very well. But I'm trying to keep an open mind as I look forward to Tuesday: Gounod's Faust, starring a Goethe-quoting tenor.


  1. I'm doing a lot of reading on the subject of "Faust" before seeing the HD broadcase (including the libretto, as the subtitles here are in German), and like you, am very interested to see how the McAnuff production. I'm sure you'll give us a lovely review next week: I'm looking forward to it. Also, that Phantom clip? Sexy.

  2. I don't think, that there is much Goethe in Gounod's Faust, but I like this opera anyhow.... ;)

  3. @Christie What fun! There's a visually striking F.W. Murnau film version that you might be able to find in libraries (or on Netflix) if you're interested. A YouTube hunt would probably get you much of the McVicar, too. The Phantom excerpt seems more aware of the issues at stake in the story than many adaptations, which intrigues me. I'm presuming you've read Goethe at least once? If not, treat yourself!

    @Sarah-Maria I agree that, for how closely it keeps to the content of Part I in many ways, the drama has been changed a lot. I love the Goethe, but I'm getting to like the opera too. :) Thanks for commenting!

  4. Hey what's the Corinna Herr citation, and what does she mean by "rationalized"? (I ask because the popularity of the neonaticide theme goes beyond the operatic stage, and the constructed narrative - fictive or otherwise - is almost always identical. [read stray wrote a paper on this awhile back and still has skin in the game])

  5. Lucy, I knew we could depend on you to be there on Tuesday....... will be thinking of you with grateful envy from what, for now, is the Wrong Side of the Atlantic...... Have a great evening.

  6. @stray The article is "Ein Verbrechen wider die Natur? Musikdramatische Interpretationen von Kindsmörderinnen und die Theorie von der 'Natur der Frau'" in Geschlechterpolaritaeten in der Musikgeschichte des 18. bis 20. Jahrhunderts, 75-86. I hesitated over the word 'rationalized'... Herr's contention is that, in the work of Cherubini and Gounod especially, Medea's and Marguerite/Gretchen's actions are not presented as "unnatural," but as responses to external, social pressures. If you want a PDF of the article, let me know.

    @shapta-dakini This is an advantage of having hooked my mother on Jonas Kaufmann--an excuse to invest in real tickets! I will be sure to report in full. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Interesting post! I have some questions, though! I agree with Sarah-Maria above, I think you have to be careful in shoveling so much Faustidee into Gounod. Or even quite so much Gounodidee into Gounod for that matter. I'm going to put on my seldom-used aestheticist hat for a second and ask how much metaphysical weight do you think the opera can sustain? Huebner (hilariously we both ran towards the same book, I read him last week, he's really all that's out there) is totally right to specifically point out how it's one step away from boulevard theater, it's superficial.

    The McVicar production works so well because it takes the piece for what it is--a revue of Romantic and religious claptrap with some really effective bits that never really cohere--and doesn't try to add the kind of philosophical/ontological dimension that Goethe has but Gounod does not. So in an academic sense I think this reception history is interesting but when getting down to stage the thing I would proceed with extreme caution when it comes to making Gounod anything more serious than the Cabaret d'enfer and a bunch of nasty ballerinas lost from Black Swan.

    BTW regarding the Walpurgisnacht--McVicar puts his Great Sluts of History onstage before the libretto has them. According to the opera text they only arrive in the ballet proper, McVicar or his choreographer made up the whole Giselle parody bit. The ballet is a separate number, it's simple to just leave out and so go the strumpets.

  8. @Lucy, if this can be done without hassle, yes please and thanks very much! samizdat2007[at]gmail

  9. @stray It can! Today is hectic, but sometime today!

    @Zerbinetta I was really surprised by the lack of material on the opera as well. Thanks for the clarification on Walpurgisnacht! I don't mean to assert that Gounod is concerned with the same things as Goethe. But I do think there's room for a production to try to examine the "whys" of all Gounod's dysfunctional relationships. I've been steeped in a reading list on European ideas of gender in the long 19th century lately, though, so maybe I've been seeing it through that. The libretto of the opera sticks close to de Nerval's translation for a good bit of it, and what I want to know is, if you're just going to have a revue of Romantic and religious claptrap (great phrase) why choose Faust? Why turn it into the parable (parody?) of Marguerite's "fall" and "redemption"? Sigh. I want it to have to mean something. (Insert remark about wishes, horses, beggars.)

  10. Sorry, you have hit upon one of my favorite topics and I have to be that annoying interlocutor who says, But you have Left Out my Work on this Subject. Constructing intention in these things is a messy business! Your analysis considers Faust both as a socially constructed text of 19th-century Zeitgeist and one where Gounod is interpretively in charge. Fair enough, but the text is also the product of operatic conventions and expectations. Of course now we can do with and interpret Faust as we see fit, but when you're rummaging around for interpretative pay dirt I think it's a mistake to include the body social and that mystical thing known as the "composer's intentions" without giving the mediating powers of genre a very prominent place as well.

    Why choose Faust? Well, the religious and demonic stuff sure worked well for Meyerbeer so why not some more of that kind of thing?

  11. @Zerbinetta Don't apologize! Now that you mention it, genre is a glaring omission of the post, sorry. There are some considerations of the music from Schraeder and from Egon Voss, but Huebner was the most thorough source I found. I didn't mean to go mystical about "composer's intentions"; lack of familiarity with Meyerbeer and boundless enthusiasm for Romanticism, cultural history, etc., led me into tempting byways of analysis and speculation. Now I guess what I need to do is get my hands on a recording of Robert le Diable. Hier stehe ich...

  12. Ah well, you're not going to find too much on the music. When I was looking for my aestheticist hat in the closet I first put on my Schenker analyst one by mistake and immediately yelped out "Gounod ist schlect! Keine Urlinie!" His stock isn't so high with those types...

    I wouldn't recommend spending too much time with Robert le diable. You'd never imagine that a ballet of debauched nuns could be so boring.


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