Faust in San Francisco – The Opera Nut Goes To San Francisco

San Francisco’s Opera nut (Philip G. Hodge) is at it again. Enjoying operas, that is. Check out his San Francisco Opera reviews – all three!

It has been almost ten years since I have been to the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, so I was eagerly anticipating going there this week to see three operas in three days, starting with Gounod’s Faust which I had last seen in San Jose about seven years ago. 

Time to see it again. My blurred-by-time memory says that the music is wonderful and the plot can be quite dramatic. In fact, the only complaint I have with M. Gounod is that I don’t like his title! To be sure, the opera starts with Faust, but at the end the focus is on Marguerite. The climax occurs when she dies and goes to heaven – it’s not clear and I don’t particularly care what happens to Faust or Mephistopheles.

I am more familiar with the Faust legend in general than I am with Gounod’s interpretation of it in particular, since I have seen and enjoyed operas by two other composers who also based their work on Goethe’s Faust, Part I which in turn was based on Marlowe’s 17th century play, Dr. Faustus.

Last year I saw Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust for the first time. The Met HD production cast John Relyea in the role of MÉphistophÉlès – the same character he played here last night.

Forty-five years ago at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, I saw Boito’s MÉphistophÉlès. Not only was it the first Boito opera I had ever seen – not only was it the first Faust-legend opera I had ever seen – it was the first Opera I had ever seen which really “grabbed” me. Sure, I had seen a few operas before – but I could take them or leave them. But that night for the first time I began to realize the beauty, the tension, the thrill that could result when orchestra, voices, scenery, special effects, and acting all fit together, each one enhancing the others to create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.

Enough musing. I am in seat P2 of the War Memorial Opera House, waiting for the overture to begin. Maestro Benini raises his baton, and we are off!

It took me a while. At first I was too conscious of how small the figures on stage were and of the fact that I couldn’t make out their facial expressions. But I hung in there.

And there were some nice touches. Previous productions of Faust that I have seen opened in Faust’s study – a room filled with musty books which he consults in ever-increasing frustration. Here we had a laboratory with test tubes and burners, etc. And a cadaver. All of which Faust consults in ever-increasing frustration.

When Faust calls on MÉphistophÉlès, the devil does not appear in a puff of smoke. Rather the cadaver throws off his covering sheet, sits up, and reveals himself, mustache and all.

Faust woos Marguerite in the garden

The sets were fantastic. I was particularly impressed by the garden scene in Act 2. The stage is filled with bushes, trees, and flowers with various paths and hiding places, thus giving it the intimacy of a much smaller space. If you recall the action, Marguerite and her elderly neighbor are marveling over the mysterious jewels when Faust and MÉphistophÉlès appear.

Faust meets Marthe (Catherine Cook) and Marguerite in the garden

MÉphistophÉlès quickly gets the four people organized into two couples and there is some nice blocking as the focus shifts from one to another. At one point MÉphistophÉlès and Marthe disappear off stage while Faust and Marguerite make beautiful music together. When the older couple reappears, MÉphistophÉlès is fastidiously picking wisps of hay off his body.

Act 3 opens with the wonderful Soldiers Chorus. Back when I took piano lessons I used to love to bang that out. This is where the “bigness” of SFOpera can really shine. And it did. The wonderful set, the large men’s chorus, the great stage filled with soldiers and towspeople-it was great! And sitting further back was a plus in hearing and seeing as a whole.

There are lots of operatic characters who cause harm to other people. There are the out-and-out villains such as Lago and Scarpia. There are the stupid selfish ones of which Faust is a prime example. But the ones I most hate are the hypocritical ones like Germont père who are so sure that they are right – and are so wrong. And I put Marguerite’s brother Valentin in that class. He can go to where he probably did!

By the final scene I was completely won over. The set featured towering walls and a centered flight of steps that reached almost to the top of the cavernous stage. The small section of bare stage that was left truly seemed to be the bottom of a deep, deep pit. And it was proper that Marguerite should seem so small. Small, but dominant, I totally identify with her as she clutches the bundle of straw to her breast in her grief.

Marguerite clutches the bundle of straw as Faust urges her to escape

Faust and MÉphistophÉlès appear on a middle step. As Faust descends to the stage, Marguerite is unaware of him and continues her beautiful ravings. She imagines that he is near and is overjoyed when he really is.

Faust comforts Marguerite

MÉphistophÉlès urges Faust to get her out of there. Time is of the essence. Faust tries his best to lead her to the steps. She breaks away and relives another scene from their happy courtship. The sequence is repeated as MÉphistophÉlès grows desperate. Sunrise is imminent. MÉphistophÉlès tells Faust now or never with such vehemence that Marguerite becomes aware of him.

She cries out in horror. She flings herself away from Faust, hurling him to the ground. MÉphistophÉlès realizes he has lost her and musically shouts, “You are accursed!” A moment of dread, and then the offstage chorus of angels sings, “No, you are saved.”
I have seen this finale staged with various gimmickry: angels appear and physically escort Marguerite to heaven; an ethereal ladder descends for her to climb; etc. This production did it with effective simpicity. The light on the stairs kept getting brighter and brighter, transforming (in my mind, at least) the stairs from hard stone steps to the outside world to a symbolic stairway to heaven. As the light grew brighter, MÉphistophÉlès descended the steps cringing before it, and eventually slunk off into the wings.

Marguerite ascends the heavenly stairway as Faust lies helplessly on the dungeon floor

Faust remained where Marguerite had thrown him, partially arisen. Marguerite started slowly up the ever brighter stairway. All of this to the incredibly beautiful final crescendo of music. Opera at its very best.

And at this point, my mind goes blank. Now, as I am writing a mere 12 hours after being there, I can’t recall how exactly it happened. Marguerite was on the stairway. She was not on the stairway. Faust hadn’t moved. MÉphistophÉlès came back on stage and handed him the deed to his soul (I don’t know why). The curtain came down.

That’s how last night’s performance actually ended. But in my mind it ends about a minute or two sooner. MÉphistophÉlès has slunk off to search for his next victim. Faust is left on stage, his future unknown. And Marguerite is on her way to heaven. C’est fini.

One last thought which I offer to San Francisco Opera for free. Next summer you are offering a Ring Cycle. Great! How about some summer offering a Faust Cycle? It would be a fantastic experience to see and hear one after another of these three different interpretations of the same legend.

The Opera nut

FAUST by Charles Frané§ois Gounod
Lyric Opera of Chicago production
June 11 (7:30 p.m.), 16 (7 p.m.), 20 (1:30 p.m.), 23 (7 p.m.), 26 (1:30 p.m.);
July 1 (7 p.m.), 2010


Stefano Secco
Patricia Racette
John Relyea 
also with Brian Mulligan, Daniela Mac, Catherine Cook, Austin Kness



Maurizio Benini
Giuseppe Finzi (June 26, July 1)
Jose Maria Condemi

Photos by Cory Weaver

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-4008 (Box Office -3330)

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on June 1, 2010

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