#10 Kiss – and the Devil in our Relationships

Bryn Terfel, Devil © Catherine Ashmore

My Opera blog is for A Faustian Pack of three operas at Royal Opera House Covent Garden, part of Criticism Now, a Cultural Institute project at Kings College London

I’ve never seen a sword-fight rehearsed before. Now here are three international opera stars lunging around in one on the rehearsal room stage.

They are rehearsing the Duel scene. In the score it’s marked “Trio”, because Mephistopheles is singing in it too.

Gounod, man of the church, makes it quite clear that the devil makes a third in every vulnerable duo.

Simon Keenleyside is Valentin, Marguerite’s soldier-brother. Joseph Calleja is her lover, the rejuvenated Faust, and Bryn Terfel is Mephistopheles –  who, with his evil crimson staff, is tipping the balance for Faust.

This is a totally male stage. A slight touch of the playground despite the international stature of the actors and the cosmic stature of the struggle. Three large men moving round fast, swords clash to the music, and three incomparable male voices ring out to the rafters of Rehearsal Room One.

They are all suddenly singing out. Which many stars don’t do, I have learned, in rehearsal. Like wild animals, they conserve their energy – their valuable voice energy – for when it’s really needed.

The texture, the resonance, is extraordinary.Joseph Calleja the tenor rings highest and  most curvily questioning. He is agonized. Faust has a conscience even though he’s weak and signed the devil’s contract. Valentin has right on his side: Faust has seduced Valentin’s sister. So does he have to kill him now, too?

Foolishly, Valentin throws away his medallion, the image of his sister which once preserved him in battle. He has stopped believing in her. And when you do that, stop trusting a person you love, that’s where the devil steps in.  Bryn Terfel stoops and snatches up the medallion.

In time with little runs in the music, Mephistopheles is orchestrating all the moves. Valentin is a professional soldier so he’s winning at first, but the hovering Mephistopheles freezes him so Faust can thrust and wound him, fatally.

In fact it’s a slice across Simon Keenleyside’s belt. He falls gracefully to his knees and the devil pulls Faust speedily away.

Then they do it again. And again.

“Chances of getting to the death of Valentin before lunch are zero,” says the assistant director gloomily to the stage manager.

Back they go, and back over it again. Every move and step, lunge and glance are crafted into every bar of music. They try it in different parts of the stage. They get clear exactly where they have to end up.

When Valentin came in at first he was tossing his sword from hand to hand. After the Trio, Mephistopheles kicks that sword away.

“When you fall,” Bruno the director tells Simon Keenleyside, “you must crawl to the centre because there’ll be six chorus members there. You need to be centre stage so they can go round you.”

The chorus is in rehearsal separately, the parts will be put together next week. I think again what an extraordinary art form this is. The heart of it is the singing but everything else must be got exactly right. The work is intense and a lot goes on at once, in each moment of rehearsal: music notes, director’s notes, stopping to discuss – and the stage managers’ three note-books keep track of every prop and garment.

At the beginning of the lunch break I watch Simon and Joseph compare notes on holding the sword hilt so their fingers don’t jar as they clash.

Bruno spends lunchtime looking over his notes.  Opera directors seem to live on air and adrenalin.

“I came to directing late,” he says. “’I was in charge of communication for Ford, for the whole of Europe - TV advertising, print, internet, everything. But I thought, I must get out! Directing opera is what I want to do and we only get one crack at life so I made the jump.”

Was that hard?

“Well - advertising taught me to be in touch with my thoughts and emotions in the moment, just as they happen, first time you see a 30 second edit of an ad. Second time round it’s too late, you know what’s coming. It’s the same thing when you see a scene here.” He waves at the empty set. “What does every gesture or turn of the head make you feel? What does it communicate about the situation, the character?”

This is exactly what I’ve been watching him do all morning. He knows the musical score as well as the singers or conductor, but he is using it to see everything newly, spot the fresh interpretative potential in every turn, glance and tableau.

After lunch, for instance, he makes the devil an even clearer presence in a quite different relationship.

In Act III, Faust and Marguerite sing their falling-in-love Duet. At one point, Bruno calls “Kiss!” Tenor and soprano obediently clinch and Bruno then turns to Bryn Terfel. “Let’s try it with you visible. Every time they kiss, you’re there.”

As it happens, Bryn Terfel today is wearing – along with his devil’s top hat and tall devil boots (opera singers, it seems, have to wear a lot of incongruous garments in rehearsal)  - a faded grey T–shirt with the name of a rock band on his chest.

KISS.

And on the back: DETROIT ROCK.

DESTROYER.

KING OF THE NIGHT.

I wonder whether he’s wearing it on purpose. More importantly, Bruno is suggesting through the grammar of the stage that the devil is present in every contact between one person and another.

Bryn Terfel, in Parisian top hat and KISS T-shirt - the Destroyer, King of the Night -  is huge. But he moves round the stage very lightly, quietly responsive to Bruno’s suggestions.

We see Mephistopheles everywhere, watching and manipulating the hapless humans. Now in the lime-light, up the iron stairs, now poking his head round the house wall in the shadows. Grinning, pointing, darting in and out.

Bruno is crafting, and Bryn Terfel is acting, exactly what Gounod’s music suggests: that whether you’re in a sword-fight, a conversation or a kiss, the devil is the potential for   damage for all of us, in every relationship.