As part of Criticism Now at the Cultural Institute of Kings College London I’m watching rehearsals for the three operas in the Royal Opera House’s Faustian Pack: Gounod’s Faust and two newly-commissioned operas on Faustian themes in contemporary settings – The Crackle by Matthew Herbert and Through His Teeth by Luke Bedford.
I’m sitting in the Opera House staff canteen. It is full of musicians in evening dress: a matinee is about to start. I have in front of me the score of Gounod’s Faust and a drink I’ve never tasted before. Vitamin Water with Artichoke and Dandelion: Elderflower and Pear Flavour. I’m sure very healthy, because the dancers who come here will only eat healthily. There is a gym for them somewhere, on an upper floor.
Grand-scale opera is not my natural territory. I feel at home with Mozart and Verdi. Faced with Gounod I feel slightly as I feel about this drink: why add flavours of elderflower and pear if you already have artichoke and dandelion?
The Faust I know from school is Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus of the 1590s, in which the drama turns on what happens to Faust’s soul. In Gounod, Méphistophe’s real target is the pure soul of Marguerite. That’s the ground of his battle with God: her innocence.
Gounod was following Goethe when he wrote his first version of Faust in 1859 and his second in 1869, and he polished into operatic glitter the motif of the innocent girl whose life Mephistopheles gets Faust to destroy.
Marguerite’s Jewel Song in Gounod is the trademark aria of that annoying opera singer Bianca Castafiore in Tintin. “O, these jewels past compare” she keeps singing at full blast, wherever she turns up.
I never used to know what she was going on about. I do now. These jewels are what the devil provides for Faust to seduce Marguerite. Above is Angela Gheorghiu in the last production entranced by them.
What is it with innocence? Gounod’s Faust was so popular in 19th- century America that the New York opera season always began with it – as in a wonderful scene in Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence.
Perhaps the whole point of innocence – in a novel or drama anyway – is to be under threat? And jewels, or seeing yourself in the mirror wearing them as Marguerite does – Gheorghiu is smiling because she is singing, exactly as La Biancafiore in Tintin, Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir – provide the high road to its corruption.
“We are going to model Marguerite on Manet’s barmaid, in his Bar at the Folies Bergères,” Bruno the director told me, showing me the picture. “She’s going to look just like this.”
This painting lives just down the road from here at the Courtauld Gallery. A few years ago I curated a series of Writers’ Talks there and invited Philip Pullman to open them. This was the painting he chose – and did a wonderful talk about its ambiguities: the innocence of the girl’s face, the mirror behind her which does not quite fit.
Her face, her positioning in front of the observer’s gaze, make her the perfect image for Marguerite. The devil’s true target. Innocence under threat.
“Engineer to the stage immediately please!”
Urgency in the voice.
“Engineer to the stage immediately! Thank you.”
On the backstage tour I took at the beginning of all this, I think I heard that the stage floors (there are several of them) were built by Rolls Royce and two Rolls Royce engineers are standing ready at all times. Can this be true?
“Ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra, please take your places in the pit. Five minutes please. Thank you.”
I set off too, for Rehearsal Room One, and take my breath again as I come in to this place of waiting sets, waiting drama, waiting music. I don’t want ever to leave it.
The actors are waiting to rehearse Walpurgis Night with the singers, to rehearse the death of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, with Sonya before she disappears – temporarily – for a commitment somewhere else. Marguerite will look like Manet’s barmaid in every performance but she is going to be sung by two different sopranos, on different nights, Sonya Yoncheva and Alexia Voulgaridou.
They are both wonderful. Sonya has a watchful held-in energy while sitting watching, or chatting to you, which translates, when she’s working, into a kind of responsive fluid sparkle. But the director has to rehearse the moves with both. Alexia – she is Greek, I’m really looking forward to seeing her work too – is coming in next week.
It must be a nightmare of complexity, planning all this. Bruno looks calm. But it must be the coiled calm of highly wound steel. In the lunch break, I come in to the Rehearsal Room and find him auditioning singers for a quite different production, Strauss’s Intermezzo.
Does an opera director ever rest?