Faust’s Old-Time Religion

It’s not for lack of hummable melodies that Charles Gounod’s opera Faust – based on Goethe’s two volumes, which themselves are based on the “Faust legend” that began circulating throughout Europe during the 16th century – is performed notably less than it used to be.

We think it’s because the world view required to believe this tale of an old philosopher who trades happy eternity to take another stab at youth is shared by far fewer in any audience than it was five, four or even one century ago. In the cosmos Gounod’s lovely music sets before us, God is indeed in His heaven, surrounded by angels with lovely singing voices, and Satan is equally in Hell (except he gets out lots more), claiming an army of demons who follow him.

And on earth, all the things we were ever taught about being good – from making proper “Christian” choices, obeying the Commandments and saying our prayers every night – are all still true. The moral complexities of our modern world, the gray that offers three shows daily between the black and white, are nowhere to be found.

Still, if done right, with a keen understanding that “Faustian bargains” face us all every day in small or large ways, Faust can be not only excellent opera but wildly satisfying entertainment. The Washington National Opera production that opened at the Kennedy Center last night, built on one by Houston Grand Opera, is precisely that level of entertainment.

The singing by all four principals is seldom short of magnificent, but the underpinning star of the show is the “painterly” set by Earl V. Staley, with lovely, often-dappled lighting by Michael Clark. It reminds us of the sheer beauty applied to canvas by Old Masters like Rubens and Titian, from the rosy cheeks on every maiden to the cascade of sunlight etching rocks, trees and clouds. Only in the darkest scenes does another artist step into focus, El Greco; but since the greatest Greek to ever live in oh-so-Catholic Spain most famously painted figures in religious transformation, including death, the “brush style” Staley relies on works well in every scene.

Many have argued since the opera’s premiere in 1859 that the main character of Faust isn’t Faust (or Dr. Faustus as he’s often Latinized) but the woman called Marguerite. It’s her story, not his of choosing damnation and then, well, getting it, that fits the classical requirements of a tragic plot. She is the ultimate good girl gone bad, “demure, chaste and pure” (as Faust’s iconic tenor aria assures us), tempted by love into sex, and from sex into capital murder. Some 19th century productions even carried the title Marguerite, though producers eventually figured our whose “bargain with the devil” was bigger box office.

Bass Raymond Aceto makes a fine, frightening Mephistopheles. Costumed not as a demon but as a class-act gentleman of his day, he shares with the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and other theological works the notion that a charming, changing, contemporary disguise would be part of Devil No. 1’s bag of tricks. Deep, well-rounded notes wrapped in cynical persuasion are a major part of what Aceto brings to the singing of this role.

Tenor Marcelo Puente shines as Faust, his ringing top notes doing exactly what they should, not to mention his convincing portrayal of an old man once at death’s door who’s chosen youth (wine, women and song, more or less) over a natural fate that bores, depresses and possibly frightens him. His first word in this opera is also the opera’s first word – “Rien,” French for nothing. The road from here to Hemingway’s proto-suicidal “nada” isn’t a long one.

Erin Wall brings what complexity she can to Marguerite, since the lines she’s given by librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre are less interesting than her story really deserves. Still we see her first as an innocent (and naïve) young woman, watch as she’s twisted off the proper path by seduction and a box of jewels, and then finally join her awaiting execution for murdering the child born of her union with Faust. Her Jewel Song is lovely, though no less so than her stirring, soaring choice of Heaven over Hell at the end. In her final moments she lives that most universal of baptismal vows: “I do reject Satan and all his empty promises.

Blessed by Gounod with the loveliest aria in the entire opera, “Avant de quitter les lieux,” baritone Joshua Hopkins makes a most appealing Valentin, Marguerite’s protective brother who nonetheless curses her for her sin with his dying breath. We’ve followed Hopkins over the early years of his career, including with the HGO Studio in Houston, and we can’t wait to hear whatever he sings next. Also noteworthy in this fine production are mezzo Allegra De Vitas as Siebel (a rather strangely envisoned trouser role, but oh well), Deborah Nansteel as Marguerite’s maternal figure Dame Marthe and Samson McCrady as Wagner.

The lively stage direction here is by Garnett Bruce, with the orchestra leading the pace under Keri-Lynn Wilson. Some better-than-average swordplay is choreographed by Joe Isenberg. Washington National Opera’s Faust, alternating with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, runs through March 30.         

Photos: Aceto as Mephistophles (top), Aceto, Wall and Puente (middle), Hopkins (below)   

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