Monday, 17 October 2011

Faust embastillé par la mise en scène?

"Faust embastillé par la mise en scène?, so writes my friend Dodorock on his unique blog De chez toi.  Thanks to him, we can watch Gounod Faust straight from Paris, Opéra Bastille, (Philippe Jordan, Roberto Alagna) hours after the show on 11th October. and also read a selection of reviews. Controversial, huh? One critic wails that Gounod's been turned into grand Guignol. On the other hand Faust's predicament is the ultimate grand Guignol, for Méphisto is leading Faust into crazier things than he could ever imagine.

Watching the production live and on film are different experiences. This film, directed by François Roussillon is probably clearer, since the camera can pick up on tiny telling details you could easily miss on a big stage. The set (Johann Engels) is panoramic for a good reason : it represents Faust's search for knowledge. Hence bookshelves straight to the top of the stage area, statues, telescopes, astrolabes, and a rhinoceros, like the one Louis XV kept at Versailles. The idea is that the universe is so full of exotic things, we can never stop searching. Faust has realized that he'll never take it all in, which is why he calls on Méphisto to restore the youth he hadn't appreciated when young. Central features: a gigantic crucifix and a glass dome under which a miniature green jungle thrives. A golden calf and huge skeleton. Such abundance, yet Faust knows something's missing. Like Einstein writing on a blackboard, he scrawls "Rien!" on the wall.

Méphisto arrives quietly. Paul Gay looks more than 2 metres tall, elegantly attired, sophisticated. A brief shot of a painting behind him, barely glimpsed, of the traditional Devil in red jumpsuit and pointy tail.  If the Devil, in real life, was so easy to spot, why follow? Why anyone needs to see him as fire spitting demon, I don't know, for the whole point is that mortals choose their own fate. Méphisto merely facilitates.

Remi Corazza sings Old Faust, who transforms into Roberto Alagna's Young Faust. On film, the switch is amazing, as it should be. It's a miracle, by the devil.  Alagna is surprisingly good, though he's more Italianate than Gallic, but that's no problem. Faust is an eternal archetype, German with Goethe, vaguely middle European in Marlowe. Alagna's physicality is superb. His Faust has erotic animal energy, with much moree individual personality than Grigolo at Covent Garden.(please see review HERE) Sex is the life force that motivates Marguerite, too, and Siebel and Marthe. 

At first, Inva Mula as Marguerite, moves like an automaton, singing the King of Thule song as if the slavish loyalty in the song was drilled into her. When she finds the jewel box, she's transforemed. While McVicar had Gheorghiu squeal with delight at fake gemstones, the Paris director, Jean-Louis Martinoty emphasizes Marguerite's inner awakening. Méphisto is with her as she takes off her robe. Mula and Alagna grope each other with  X rated realism. They sing the double duets with real relish, as if both are discovering Eros for the first time.  The film cuts to a shot of the glass dome with the jungle which was there all along side stage. A glimpse of Dürer's Adam and Eve flashes on screen, almost certainly missed live. I'm less convinced by the green light and foliage that now fill the stage but Martinoty is making a valid point. God or Devil, it's humans who make the choices.

The soldiers return from war as walking wounded, which give Gloria immortelle a poignant kick. Like Faust, Marguerite, and Siebel, they've bought into dreams.  From this point, illusions are shattered. Méphisto appears dressed as a red robed bishop, possibly on stilts, as he towers above all.  He tramples on the giant crucifix, which lowers like a drawbridge between Hell and Earth. "Marguerite, sois maudite!" intones Gay, with dark portent. The ancient goddesses rock baby pigs and owls, in a parody of Marguerite rocking her dead baby, and feast on a table that was once the Crucifix. A skeleton descends from the ceiling. "Quel etrange ornement" indeed.

Then crucifix becomes guillotine. On stage, this might have been clumsy. On film, we see the soldiers, townsfolk and sundry  personages parade in a mock religious procession - Gloire immortelle, now kinky and twisted. Then Siebel emerges, carrying Marguerite's head which gets put, not into a tumbril but into the kind of glass case with holy relics you see in hallowed sites.  She gets to Heaven though not quite in the usual way. Méphisto doesn't need to drag Faust  physically down to Hell. He merely points, and Faust meekly follows. What happens in Hades can't be much worse than damnation on earth. No wonder Fench critics weren't comfortable. But it's a valid realization of the plot.

Philippe Jordan conducts the orchestra of L'Opéra Bastille, with sardonic pungency. Definitely a whiff of sulphur here! In the love duets, the orchestra is specially verdant and romantic, but Jordan has a feel for the mad march that underlies the greater arc in the music. From the overture to the end, the pace is brisk, controlled but sharp. Mépghisto's music is particularly vivid. The staccato "footsteps" are deft, almost magical, matching Méphisto's sly, unhumorous  "Ha ! Ha ! Ha !"
Here is, thanks to Ddorock, the link to the broadcast  Lots more on Faust, Goethe and other Faust operas/movies on this site too, please explore.

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