05 July 2010

Are you there, gods? It's me, Marguerite

Almost twenty years of going to the War Memorial Opera House, and the Saturday matinee of Faust was my first trip all the way up to the balcony. I'd been wondering if the romantic nicknames (the heavens, the gods) used by les enfants du Paradis and their raves about the sound were really just compensation for being unable to see anything. I used to sit in Dress Circle, but that was many years ago. Saturday I was up as high as I could go, in the very back row. I thought I was getting an aisle seat, but I was three seats in, in one of the center sections.

So here’s the scorecard: it is warmer up there (not something I like), but not suffocatingly so. The seats are fairly tight but endurable, though I did take advantage of some third-act exits to move over a few seats so that there was no one on either side of me. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake, since it put me that much closer to a five-year-old boy who had had enough by then, and let me just say that taking a five-year-old boy to a four-hour French opera on a sunny June Saturday is not at all a completely insane thing to do. On the other hand, the woman to the left of my original seat had not only taken off her shoes but crossed her legs, so if I had stayed there I would have spent the last hour dreading the moment she violated my space and touched me with her disgusting bare feet. (Why do women think it’s OK to do this in theaters?)

As for OperaVision, well, it is a big plus if, like me, you consider opera to be theater. But, of course, you see only what the camera chooses for you to see, and sometimes you want close-ups when they give you stage views and vice versa. It’s a little disorienting to be about two-and-a-half miles above the stage, up where opera glasses do no good, watching the tiny people move below, framed by two screens on either side showing you the same thing, only much larger. Of course you watch the screens, because you can actually see things happening there. But they flatten the colors severely, so you see a drabber version of what’s on stage. I first really noticed this with the soldiers’ coats, which were a vivid dark teal on stage and a flat steel-blue on screen. The fiery red of Mephistopheles’s motley in the second scene was a subdued red, and the rich velvety blue of Act 2’s night sky lost its bloom entirely.

I’m curious to see how Faust sticks in my memory: as something live on stage, or as a video. There’s this odd thing my memory does with the size of a performer: the more vivid and intense the performance, the larger he or she looms in memory. So for instance when I think of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson burning up the stage as Octavia in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, she’s absolutely huge, as if I were in the front row of a movie theater looking straight up. And when I think of something like the labored antics of The Merry Widow, the singers are all so tiny. But then I go back inside the theater and realize that neither memory could be accurate. But that huge/tiny split is what you really do get, simultaneously, in the balcony. I did feel quite distanced from the action, so that it took me a while to realize that the soldiers’ rousing and patriotic chorus in Act 3, which would otherwise have been a tedious and time-wasting set-piece, was poignantly accompanied by widows and mothers receiving their wounded men, or just the flags given them in memory of the slain, and it took me even longer to be moved by it.

So would I sit in the balcony again? I wouldn’t rule it out. It would be a good way to see something I was curious about but maybe not that vested in seeing, or to see something a second or even third time (but I do have to say that although the seats up there are relatively cheap, that's not the same thing as being actually cheap – my ticket was almost $50, and that’s with whatever discount I got as the possessor of a choose-your-own subscription – anywhere else but an opera house or a football stadium that would have gotten me a seat much closer to the action). I do like to feel more immediacy in the theater, and more connection to what I've paid to see.

There is a nice large promenade back there, and if standing room is as uncrowded as it was that Saturday, it would probably be nice to sit back on one of the plush benches there and listen, only coming up to the railing if you wanted to check out the staging. As for the much-vaunted sound up there: well, it is nice. Oddly enough, it’s more blended and refined, lacking some of the rawness and urgency I hear down in the costly seats. It would have been interesting to have heard Fanciulla in the balcony, to see if the orchestra is as overwhelming as it was below. Of course, it's a little unfair to base this on only one opera, and that opera Faust.

I’m not the Faust-hater some people are, but I think I probably don’t need to see it again anytime soon (though the music is attractive enough so that I would certainly put the CDs on while doing something else). I had also seen Faust last time SF Opera performed it, in 1995, so I knew not to expect the intellectual and spiritual qualities in Goethe’s or even Marlowe’s version of the story (and that’s fine – I don’t think Verdi’s Otello is as deep as Shakespeare’s, either, though Boito and Busoni both show it's possible to bring more depth to an operatic treatment of Faust). But Gounod’s hero doesn’t seem to have any yearnings that couldn’t be taken care of with a prescription for Viagra and regular visits to a gym. It’s hard to believe he has a soul, much less one the devil would struggle to win. No wonder the focus shifts to Marguerite as soon as it can.

Berlioz and Schumann and Mahler set only scenes from Faust, avoiding any attempt to compress the story into a manageable operatic evening. In an odd way Gounod does that too. It's not just that the modern taste is for swifter, more concentrated drama and this is discursive, sentimental, filled with set-pieces that delay the action. (Even with the Walpurgischnacht ballet omitted the action dawdles.) And it’s not just that he concentrates on the affair with Marguerite, which is certainly a defensible way of proceeding. It’s that he indulges himself in the parts he enjoys, that fit his smooth and lovely style (the Act 2 seduction of Marguerite seemed endless – this must be what Act 2 of Tristan is like for anyone who hates Wagner). And then we get four important scenes in the final act treated so rapidly, and with crucial details alluded to so quickly that you could easily miss them (for example, that Marguerite has lost her mind and accidentally killed her child, which is why she herself is condemned to death). But this version is stripped of the details of Mephistopheles's subtle manipulation of Faust, and how Marguerite’s innocence appeals to both the best and worst qualities in Faust, and without this kind of psychological or emotional framework you end up with a story about a creepy old man who wants nothing more than to seduce and abandon an innocent girl.

Seduced and abandoned – yes, Marguerite is a fallen woman. You see how far the story is from our moral framework. Her redemption seems not like a subversive example of a more pure morality, the way it would have in the nineteenth century, but like simple justice. It’s her brother Valentin and Faust whose behavior is not only completely unjustified, but downright repellent in our eyes. Interestingly, the final scene of this staging showed Marguerite ascending a long Caligariesque stairway to salvation (the stairs were extremely effective, and would have been more so if I hadn’t been up in the balcony where about the top third was cut off) while Mephistopheles down below presents Faust with the signed contract and claims his soul. This is of course not Goethe’s ending, and I thought it wasn’t Gounod’s either, but it's remarkably fitting and effective here, since there is no earthly reason why this Faust should be pardoned.

The performers were in good voice the afternoon I went. John Relyea is an imposing Mephistopheles, with surprisingly little to do besides looking suave and slightly menacing. I liked Stefano Secco’s light clear voice as Faust. I’m a long-time fan of Patricia Racette, but I had mixed feelings about her: she comes into her own as the crazed, anguished Marguerite of the finale, crazed and anguished being things she can really commit to, but there was something weirdly campy about her in the early scenes. Maybe that’s inevitable when a diva plays an innocent, naive girl, but she really should not have flipped away the faithful Siebel’s bouquet so quickly once she spotted the box of jewels – that was straight out of Charles Ludlam, and people laughed. Siebel was nicely sung by Daniela Mack, Marthe was the reliable Catherine Cook doing her bawdy older woman thing, and Valentin was Brian Mulligan, who sang the unsympathetic part with beauty and force, though I think if he is going to portray soldiers he should hit the gym a little more often. Giuseppe Finzi conducted fluidly, though occasionally I wanted him to pick up the pace. I didn’t think the music was profound enough for the subject or for slowness. The tunes have been running in my head ever since, though. It’s all so pretty and catchy when you sell your soul!


Ms. Baker said...

This entry's title has to go into your hall of fame. So great.

I suppose it is the mother and teacher in me, but I can't get past the 5 year old boy. I honestly can't think of any even well-meaning reason to bring a child to this opera. Even if you think your five year old is so musically and intellectually mature that he might enjoy an opera, there are several shorter and more kid-friendly ones to choose from. Was it cheaper than a babysitter? Was Mommy or Daddy on stage?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I was pretty pleased with the title myself, I must admit.

As for the five-year-old: I think I can just summarize it by saying that people are stupid. Really, really stupid. And thoughtless!

Here I thought it was the woman's bare feet that would set you off. . .