Something about selling your soul for short-term pleasure must be a box-office draw. The Faust story goes back to the beginnings of opera in Covent Garden. The first Theatre Royal (1732) was built with money made from a pantomime Dr Faustus so opera here owes its origins to the Faust theme, and Gounod’s Faust is one of the most popular operas in history.
For two months this spring, as part of the ‘Criticism Now’ project at the Cultural Institute project at Kings College London, I’ve been watching rehearsals at the Royal Opera House for their Faust Pack - Gounod’s Faust plus two new chamber operas on Faustian themes. This is the first time they’ve integrated a main stage production with their lovely studio space which does smaller, new, post 1950 opera. The new operas found disturbing Faustian echoes in contemporary scenarios: cutting-edge electronics and a conman specializing in sexual magnetism.
It’s been an extraordinary experience. I was made more and more aware of the opportunities for Mephistopheles everywhere in modern life, but I’ve also been fascinated by watching gifted directors, conductors and singers crafting together their own vision of an ancient story, clarifying the Faust in all of us.
First night of Gounod’s Faust, A packed house, very different from the auditorium dark and empty, when I watched the set going up with a hundred technicians all over it.
To limit the coughing that bedevils every silence, programme sellers are handing out free throat pastilles to the smartly dressed audience finding their seats.
I’m behind two opera buffs comparing star sopranos like runners in the Grand National.
The soprano tonight, Sonya Yoncheva, is singing Marguerite for the first time, and first time on this stage.
I thought she was fantastic when I first met her two months ago backstage in Rehearsal Room One. I’ve learned that singers don’t normally sing out in rehearsal. The work there is crafting the moves, perfecting the acting to fit each bar of music. So I’ve heard Sonya’s full voice only intermittently but I know it’s gorgeous. These guys are in for a surprise.
I didn’t know this opera two months ago. As the curtain rises, we see Bryn Terfel in flowing wig and 19th century cape, rather than his faded T shirt saying Detroit Rock.
He walks slowly up the iron ladder towards the organ loft which on this set houses God who will eventually confound him.
I remember him at the first rehearsal on that ladder, asking the director, “How far up do I dare go?”
I realized then that all of them, singers and director, are working all the time while carrying the intimately-known music inside their heads, to uncover the heart and point of the drama more and more deeply.
The cheval glass, in which Mephistopheles shows Faust his rejuvenated self, is filthy. I remember mentioning this, hesitantly, to Greg Eldridge the assistant director after the first stage rehearsal - in a post-mortem rehearsal. (Called “Notes”, I now know). I said it could do with a wash.
“It’s supposed to be dirty,” Greg said. “Faust is an old guy, a bachelor. Everything round him is smeared and gone to pot.”
Now, the staging makes me think, does Faust’s smeary sense of self reflect his compromised soul?
A contrast with Marguerite, when she is being tempted innocently by the devil’s jewels.
“It can’t be wrong to open the casket,” she says.
All the “openings” she does, laying herself open to the devil - opening the casket, the window, opening herself to love - are inadvertent compared to those of Faust.
She too looks in a mirror but this one’s as spring-sparkling as the Jewel Song itself – and Sonya sings it dazzlingly.
All that power, warmth and golden voice sat quiet within her in the canteen, or sitting around in rehearsal checking her mobile phone.
The men clapping in front of me look at each other.
“Good, isn’t she?” one says as if a horse he bet on is running strong.
Now for the Quartet, when the three main singers first engage with each other musically. The fourth time I’ve watched Faust, Mephistopheles, Marguerite and her nosy neighbor Marthe sing it.
Marthe comes out of her house with a saucepan, dabbles enviously in the jewels, then flirts with Mephistopheles. Bryn Terfel, in a captain’s uniform, just like the one we’ve seen on Marguerite’s brother Valentin, distracts Marthe so Faust can begin seducing Marguerite.
They go into Marthe’s house and the blind goes down. Terfel comes out buttoning his flies.
When I looked at Greg’s score for this scene I saw opposite the music the stage direction was ”buckling his belt”.
“It wasn’t that,” I said. “It was his flies.”
Greg smiled. “Some things you don’t put in the Notes.”
Mephistopheles and Marthe are written to be an ugly mirror, of Faust’s seduction of Marguerite which will also end in male abandoning female. The Quartet contains the whole story arc of Faust and Marguerite, as the devil sees it. At the first rehearsal there were problems about what to do with the saucepan and how Mephistopheles gets away from Marthe, afterwards.
Now the moves are clear, and bring out the mirroring (more mirror stuff) between each couple: which Gounod has written into the music, giving each voice a different emotional as well as musical agenda.
I realize what an extraordinary thing it is, to direct an opera with intelligent singers.
Scene after scene, details I’ve watched long hours spent on in Rehearsal Room One, follow each other, more and more clearly .They drive home to me one of opera’s great strengths: that it can vault over the connections of realism.
Yes, stage manager and directors have to think about how to get someone off stage and on, holding a a sword or string of pearls. But the music cuts effortlessly, as in cinema, from the fore-play of a love duet to Marguerite pregnant and abandoned, and to her brother’s death in his attempt to avenge the dishonour.
I’ve watched Bruno Ravello the director making tiny adjustments to gestures Bryn Terfel does. Now here are two more mirrorings. The devil has turned Faust into a shambling junkie: when he gives him his fix, he sings a mocking serenade above him, right in his face, stabbing his chest with his finder to mark the chords.
Tonight, ending this cruel serenade, Terfel swipes his staff over Faust’s prone body. It is a new gesture. Since the Dress Rehearsal. Bruno and Bryn must have refined it: the devil is making a clear sweep of Faust, sealing his power.
And in the following scene in the church. he seals his power over the pregnant body of Marguerite, who enters in a pink shawl. He lifts the shawl off her and tosses it away, then presses down on her swollen belly, causing pain you can hear in agonized chords in the music.
Again, new gestures, different from the Dress Rehearsal.
It’s much clearer now, how the devil is playing with his victims.
Afterwards, I go up to staff drinks celebrating the first night and pass the open door of Bryn’s dressing room.
He’s having his make-up taken off. No flowing wig.
Behind me, the corridor is full of Bulgarians arriving to congratulate Sonya.
“A new star is born,” says Bryn, delighted. “They’re all here, Deutsche Gramophon, opera houses – all queuing up for her.”
“You’ve changed some stuff,” I say. “It’s different with Faust, and Marguerite when you have them on the floor.”
He smiles. Of course, it’s obvious: a show gets honed with each performance, it’s not set in stone.
“I’m on the whole time,” he says as make-up is wiped from his right cheek. “People say it’s creepy when I’m in the dress on Walpurgis Night, but I think it’s creepiest when I’m in ordinary uniform, like Valentin. That’s creepy”.
I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe it’s the same point that the contemporary Faust operas in the Linbury are making: that the devil is at his worst not dressed up but when he’s in our own clothes, wearing the familiar face of everyday.
For Faust and all of us, that’s when Mephistopheles is most dangerous.
That’s the joy of opera – it makes you see and understand new things each time you see one.