Review: A “Faust” Surprise in Houston – January 23, 2007

The foul weather flags were flying along Galveston Bay, the Houston area’s Gulf of Mexico shoreline, when William Burden, the tenor scheduled to sing the title role in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Faust” awoke to an inflamed throat. Throughout the day he consulted with his doctor, voice experts, and the opera’s management. It was on again, off again as to whether Burden should sing that evening. Two and a half hours before curtain time, Burden made his decision.

Two Fausts for the price of one

Just before conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s entry into the orchestra pit, Houston Grand Opera’s general manager, Anthony Freud, OBE, stepped onstage to announce that, although Burden would be in costume and would act (and, in effect, lip-synch) the role of Faust, the actual singing would be done by a talented young tenor from Knoxville, Beau Gibson, who would stand at stage right at a music stand (in Lang-Lessing’s line of sight), clothed in a black suit and black shirt.

Like Burden, Gibson had experience in the San Francisco Opera Merola program. He had been selected as the Lynn Murray, Sr. Educational Foundation Fellow of the Houston Grand Opera Studio Program. (The HGO Studio, founded 30 years ago by David Gockley and composer Carlisle Floyd, like the Merola and Adler Fellowship programs of San Francisco Opera, has produced a long roster of distinguished alumni who perform in leading roles throughout the world.)

Although Gibson knew the role, obviously he had never rehearsed the complex stage business in this “Faust” production. (As an example, Houston Grand Opera employs a “certified teacher of stage combat”, Brian Byrnes, credentialed by the Society of American Fight Directors, who would certainly worry about an artist stepping into the role of Faust absent the mastery of the choreographed moves that he and Mephistopheles wage in the swordfight that mortally wounds Valentin.)

If one pursues the annals of opera companies, one will find an occasional record of a part being acted by a vocally indisposed performer while another sings the role. But it is rare occurrence. It is quite probable that no one in that Houston audience will ever see this happen again.

If it had been a lackluster production to begin with, and if Gibson had been inadequate, the loss of Burden’s superb voice would have demorialized the audience. As it turned out, it was an enjoyable, even memorable, performance, with much to commend it.

In fact, the Gibson-Burden team created enough excitement and audience rapport that it stole a bit of thunder from one of big stories of this series of “Fausts” – its dominance by the character of Marguerite and the performer who played her.

Gounod’s “Marguerite” performed in Houston

One of the stories one hears is that, when opera productions were less international than they are now, German companies, as a protest to the way that Goethe’s “Faust Part One” characters were portrayed in Gounod’s “Faust”, would perform the Gounod opera under the title “Marguerite”.

In a commentary I recently posted on this website, entitled “The Devil’s Details, Part II: Thoughts on Gounod’s ‘Faust'”, I suggested the story that Gounod extracted from the Goethe work is actually more in tune with 21st century tastes than is Goethe’s play written at the beginning of the 19th century. I suggested that if we concentrate first on the relationships of Marguerite, Valentin and Siebel and regard the Faust – Mephistopheles contract as a “backstory”, then one might be persuaded that Marguerite is the most extreme example of female vicitimization in opera’s standard repertory.

There were several developments in the Houston performances that I found to be absolutely in line with my own thinking on the matter. The first was the decision to restore ALL of Valentin’s, Marguerite’s and even Siebel’s music that constituted the traditional cuts of the late 19th and the 20th centuries.

The second was the decision to axe all of the Walpurgisnacht scene. The latter scene, of course, was added to meet the obligations of the Paris Opera that required the insertion of a ballet. What has long been suspected, and on which a consensus is now emerging, is that Leo Delibes, the composer of “Lakme”, actually composed most of that scene and its ballet on Gounod’s behalf.

Of course, restoring previous cuts makes little sense if it does not bring something to the opera. The Houston team’s approach to the “new” story-line was transformative. Lang-Lessing is proving to be conductor who is sensitive to the latest musicological research into the performance history of French opera (including updated performances of both of Bizet’s major operatic works – “Les Pecheurs de Perles” and “Carmen” – at San Francisco Opera). Stage director Elizabeth Bachman, whose work is based on the original concepts of Francesca Zambello, was able to use the musical restorations to add new coherence to the story line.

My scene by scene comments follow, but the Lang-Lessing/Bachman order of scenes is compelling. After the traditional prologue, Kermesse scene, and “nuit d’amour” in Marguerite’s garden, the traditionally cut scene follows of Marguerite’s despair at her social rejection of her pregnant state. She is comforted only by Siebel.

The soldiers arrive, led by Valentin. Then Siebel tries to block Valentin from seeing Marguerite in her condition. Valentin brushes past Siebel and enters Marguerite’s house (an extra-textual innovation). Upon leaving her house, Valentin is confronted by Faust and Mephistopheles, denounces Marguerite, and dies. His body is placed in the church (also extra-textual), and Marguerite, attempting to mourn the loss of her brother, is tormented by Mephistopheles.

Marguerite suffers a mental breakdown at the church. Offstage, she murders Faust’s child. She is arrested and thrown in jail. Faust, now himself a demon following Mephistopheles’ bidding, attempts to take her with them to Hell. As the men descend to hell, heavenly powers rescue her and she ascends to heaven.

The episodic nature of the traditional “Faust” performance – disconnected scena, all with hit tunes – is thus abandoned for a tightly organized core story (without harm to any of the hit tunes). And, of course, we see at once that the Walpurgisnacht episode, with or without ballet, has nothing to do with our “Marguerite”.

The Backstory

The opera opens on Earl Staley’s 1985 sets, which follow the composer’s intentions of the opera being sited in a medieval German town. Faust (Burden), whose legend is ultimately based on a real life German academician, is seen in a old man’s costume and long beard, through Staley’s brightly painted scrim, working in his library-laboratory.

[Below: Samuel Ramey is Mephistopheles; edited image, based on Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

In despair over wasting his youth on academic pursuits that have brought him no happiness, he conjures the devil (not convinced he even exists). At Faust’s invocation, Mephistopheles (Samuel Ramey) appears, and agreeing to his wish for restoration of his youth in exchange for eternal servitude, hands him a bubbling goblet. In a literal flash, Burden is transformed into a handsome youth, looking like a Disney Prince Charming, in gold-tinged white doublet and pastel tights.

From the first scene, it was evident that Burden is not the only one with vocal problems, and that his colleague’s were not the result of a transitory infection. Ramey, possessor of one the great voices of the 20th century, was unable to sustain the long legato passages of Mephisto’s early scenes (nor in the later church scene with Marguerite).

Fortunately, most of Ramey’s music in the later scenes consists of the jerky “devil’s gallop” songs such as the “Calf of Gold” and “Serenade” (even his part in the final trio), and, as the evening progressed, Ramey was able to achieve some of that vocal control that we always associated with him. His showmanship, however was nowhere diminished. As needed, he was an amusing prankster or the snarling personification of evil.

To the Kermesse and Beyond

[Below: Dancing the Stroll at the Kermesse; edited image, based on a Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The Kermesse scene is graced by Staley’s painted backdrop of German mountains, with one of the hilltop towns that are a prominent feature of Western Germany in the near distance.

We are apparently still in a period where stage directors require the Kermesse to be a manic experience, with jugglers and tumblers aplenty, a half dozen or so small kids who run through the jugglers’ routines and around the stage enacting this stage director’s concept of operatic children at play, and a troup of actors performing a skit in which a devil has a major role.

(Ramey’s Mephisto drew laughs from the Houston audience when he signalled his approbation of the bright red costume worn by the stage devil.)

But the stage director’s deficiencies in handling crowd scenes are counterbalanced by a generally good conceptualization of the inter-relations of the principals. By the Kermesse all of the members of the cast (excepting Dame Marthe) have appeared and sung. Earle Patriarco, a former San Francisco Opera Adler fellow, delivered Valentin’s great first act aria impressively. Liam Bonner, an excellent light baritone and HGO Studio Fellow sang the Song of the Rat in rat-mask astride a large wine-cask.

This was interrupted by Ramey’s vintage “Calf of Gold” high-jinks, in which he held Bonner’s Wagner under a spell, causing him to twirl around the stage while Ramey’s Mephisto showed off.

But eventually Valentin and Wagner get the better of Mephisto, forcing him onto the ground through the anti-demonic magic of the Chorus of Swords. The mute Burden’s Faust introduces himself to his Marguerite, the impressive Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri, and we have a tranquil moment before the waltz sounds and the hyperactive Kermesse crowds return. Rather than waltzing (which, of course, 16th century German fair-goers did not really do) we look on a display of pairs of choristers, each pair with a different dance routine, moving forward through a line of other dancers (like a Virginia reel or the 1950s party dance, “the Stroll”).

I first became aware of how badly Kermesse scenes can be staged in 1970, when the Elizabethan Drama Director Allen Fletcher assayed “Faust” at the San Francisco Opera, ending it by having Roger Soyer, the Mephistopheles, jump on an ox-cart waving a red flag, for no conceivable reason other than there being a spot at downstage center left where no movement was occurring. Director Bachman proved to be part of the spurious “end the Kermesse with a flag being waved” tradition, when Patriarco’s Valentin reappeared with a large banner, waving it for no conceivable reason other than there being a spot at downstage center right where no movement was occurring.

As Act II began, we are at Marguerite’s house, surrounded by a canopy of trees. We hear Siebel’s famous song after she discovers that holy water will undo a devil’s spell. The Siebel was Marie Lenormand, a French mezzo-soprano and graduate of the HGO studio. Lenormand proved to be an attractive and vocally secure Siebel, who affectingly delivered both her well-known “flower song” and, as a reward for all of us, the music Gounod wrote for her rarely performed Act III appearances, including a gentle second solo aria.

[Below: Faust (William Burden) embraces Marguerite (Tamar Iveri); edited image, based on a Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Then, as one of the evening’s most notable delights, Gibson performed “Salut! demeure” with such accomplishment that he received an ovation from the audience, applause from Lang-Lessing, and even a smile from Burden, his alter ego. This was followed by a departure from the libretto’s stage directions that I did not care for, although I suspect many people regarded it as clever.

Instead of sitting at the spinning wheel (such a wheel sat on the stage as a prop, should any future stage director wish to return to what was intended), Marguerite reads a fairy-tale book about the “King of Thule” to a couple of the kids that pop up so often in this production.

Instead of her mind wandering with thoughts of the mysterious gentleman while she sits at her loom, she loses track of what she is reading, necessitating tugs of her skirt by one of the annoyed children.

Then Iveri tossed off the coloratura passages of the Jewel Song. Iveri’s physical appearance reminded me of Leyla Gencer (Iveri’s repertoire includes some of Gencer’s roles), whom I first saw when she was in her late 20s. After she and Dame Marthe try several of the gems on for size, Iveri scooped them into the case and took them into her house. I had never thought of it before, but began to wonder, what happens to Marguerite’s cache of jewels? If they were real, they should have been worth a fortune. More likely, the jewels, like everything else the pair of strangers had to offer her, were worthless or even dangerous.

Catherine Cook, a stalwart in the matronly roles at San Francisco Opera and elsewhere, made her Houston debut as Dame Marthe Schwerlein. She was interesting and sufficiently aggressive in her romantic scene with Mephisto that his later taunt that she seemed determined to marry anyone – even the devil himself – earned Ramey some more audience laughter.

[Below: What’s the worst that can happen? Faust (William Burden) stands at Marguerite’s doorstep and will be invited in for the night; edited image, based on Brett Coomer photograph courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

The quartet of principals (quintet if we recall we have doubled the Fausts) delivered an enchanting reading of Gounod’s unsurpassed love music. In a magical ending of the scene, after Marguerite has confessed her love to the stars (and to the voyeurs eavesdropping on her), she falls in Faust’s arms as a forest canopy descends upon them and Marguerite’s garden closes onto the couple also.

Mimicking Marguerite’s earlier episode pulling the petals from a daisy, Mephistopheles himself picks apart a flower for a “he loves her”, “he loves her not” ending to the scene.

This ended the traditional order of scenes in which “Faust”, for a dozen decades or so, has usually been presented. For Act III, we get a winter scene, with ice dripping down the street side of a wall that encircles Marguerite’s house and garden, snowflakes falling as if we are in the third act of Puccini’s “La Boheme”. Then we hear Marguerite’s so-called “Spinning Wheel Song”, with the whirring of the wheel heard in the orchestra (but no chance of her actually using the instrument on the outside street, since she wouldn’t go near it when it was sitting on her own property.)

After Marguerite’s plaintive (and beautifully sung) expressions of sorrow at being shunned by her old friends and neighbors for the consequences of the “nuit d’amour”, Siebel appears to console her, in a scene (after so many generations that discarded it) that I find dramatically effective, with appropriately simple music to suggest the unsophisticated sentiments of a teenage boy.

From this point on, Siebel, perhaps blinded by his puppy love, is the only person who treats Marguerite as a worthy human. He is thereby doing the work of the angels, who will have to step in at the end of the opera to assure Marguerite that she is not the party at fault.

In the Houston “Faust”, the treatment of the Soldier’s Chorus reflects the predisposition of many operatic stage directors these days to reflect on the real-life impact of war. Patriarco’s Valentin appears to be the leader of his group of soldiers, looking after the wounded on stretchers, awarding medals and consoling grief-stricken women. We are in a Catholic part of Germany, with priests and nuns sometimes out-numbering the ubiquitous children, the priests providing succor or last rites to the wounded as needed.

[Below: Faust (William Burden) aided by Mephistopheles (Samuel Ramey) kills Valentin (Earle Patriarco); edited image, based on Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

There are still places in the world that insist on the scene of Marguerite in the church taking place before the return of Valentin and the soldiers, but Houston Grand Opera shows why this is wrong-headed.

The transposition apparently was required when the Marguerite and Marguerite-Siebel and Siebel-Valentin scenes were cut, as if the church scene provides the dramatic reasons for Valentin’s fury with Marguerite that leads to his death.

But it is Siebel’s attempt at preventing Valentin’s entrance into Marguerite’s house that raises first his suspicion and then his anger when he finds that she has “dishonored” the family with an illegitimate child.

(Goethe, who wrote “Faust Part One” from which the story of Gounod’s “Faust” came, had witnessed the real world consequences of illegitimate births in late 18th century Germany, the beheading of one such mother.)

[Below: Valentin (Earle Patriarco), rather than accept the assistance of his sister Marguerite (Tamar Iveri) curses her; edited image, based on Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Valentin’s curse of Marguerite, delivered by a baritone with dramatic flair, is one of the most chilling in all of opera, and Patriarco did it with fervor.

In the Houston concept, Valentin’s body lays in the funerary chapel of a church in which Marguerite comes to mourn her estranged brother, and it is here that she confronts Mephistopheles, a chorus of demons, and her own mental instability.

Here she becomes disoriented, and runs back and forth in the church, in the madness that overcomes her. In the next scene, two police officials throw her into a prison cell, where, clutching her dead baby’s bloodstained swaddling clothes, she reenacts its murder.

The demon Mephistopheles and his demon apprentice Faust then appear, with Faust attempting to persuade Marguerite that she belongs with them in Hell. She sings to the angels in heaven. When Mephisto calculates he has lost control of her soul, he strikes Faust to the ground, and the two of them descend through the stage to the netherworld.

In the Staley production, Marguerite’s apotheosis recreates a traditional view of heaven, with abundant clouds, a stage fog-making machine and a white staircase, which she ascends, as the chorus of angels announce her salvation.

Even with Burden’s indisposition and Ramey at less than his historical best, the Houston “Faust”, under Lang-Lessing, was revelatory. Iveri is an important addition to the Houston roster, and Patriarco and Lenormand will be worthy contributors to “Faust” performances throughout the world.

The Staley sets have some elements (particularly the Act III “winter scene”) that are especially imaginative, and provides a setting for a “Faust” that respects the traditions of this classic French opera. The stage direction incorporates some concepts (obviously, most of the blocking of the Kermesse and the dissociation from Marguerite’s spinning wheel throughout the opera) that are ripe for rethinking, but also contains important innovations that enhance the dramatic flow and one’s appreciation for the story line of this quintessential French opera.

For my account of my first performance of “Faust”, see: Faust November 3, 1955.

For my essay on the subject of this opera, see: The Devil’s Details Part II: Thoughts on Gounod’s “Faust”.