The opera is not for the faint of heart, and Faust, a riot of emotion and depravity, is not for everyone. As the patrons to the Gaiety file into the cavernous, ornate theatre, dressed in semi-formal attire much different than opera goers of centuries past, silence descends upon the space. Anticipation and curiosity hangs heavy in the air as people murmur about when the curtain will be lifted. And when it does, sound erupts from the stage.
The opening scene immediately throws the audience into a scene of emotional tumult: Faust attempting to end his suffering by drinking poison. You see him, a wealthy nineteenth century doctor, disillusioned with life, full of regret, tortured by emptiness he could never assuage. This Faust, the suffering Faust, is depicted in these scenes as an old, silent man, while his desires and emotions manifest in young Faust, who voices these feelings through song. So frustrated by this life he is trying to escape, he curses God and Nature, inadvertently summoning the Devil, Mephistopheles.
Being the Devil, Mephistopholes pounces upon the opportunity presented in Faust. In his state of distress he is easily manipulated into signing a contract which grants him youth and a promise of love at the price of his freedom or soul. But being caught up in his long-lost bright future he is blinded to this caveat, and in this blindness, the audience can see how this “bright” future might unfold.
At this point old Faust fades away, leaving only young Faust, radiant with hope. This Faust bounds forward high on possibility, essentially falling headfirst into love with the innocent and beautiful Marguerite.
Marguerite, an exhausting paradigm of purity, of course briefly plays hard to get, before being wooed by the jewels and flowers Mephistopheles encourages Faust to give her. Their love story is a tale as old as time: a passive woman swept up by an entitled man. Their supposed passion sparks into being from apparent nothingness. No time is spent in getting to know each other. They just decide they are in love. This is, however, typical of operas which explore a very heightened, unrealistic realm of emotion. Yet this exaggeration of feeling was perhaps why I found it difficult to empathise with Faust and Marguerite as characters. Their love was too sudden, their passion too baseless, and it all burst into existence so quickly you’re left wondering if you missed something.
The music and the singing were admittedly incredible, soaring, passionate and deeply moving pieces that helped you feel the story in your heart instead of seeing it with your eyes. It was tortured, it was stressful, it was sensually all-consuming, and so you understood how Marguerite and Faust were feeling as they fell in love, and how they suffered in the second half when the price of dealing with the devil truly unfolds. And yet while you understood their feelings it was only because your ears told you; watching the opera and reading the English subtitles for the French singing only left me feeling slightly confused, even with the program. Perhaps it was the strangely industrial set, or the constant assembling and disassembling of said set by the various supporting characters and singers. Regardless, the only thing that was easy to grasp was the state of heightened emotion, but in a way those feelings belonged to the audience instead of the characters, and this state of mutual experience did not connect the two.
And so, as the story concludes with Marguerite dying and Faust being consumed by guilt, sympathy is hard to find even if you can understand the loneliness that drove Marguerite into Faust’s corrupting arms, and the despair which led Faust to be so controlled by this corruption.
However, something has to be said for the enigmatic presence of Mephisopheles who never pretends to be anything more than he is. He is the Devil. He is temptation and sin incarnate — and he owns that role. You like him despite yourself, and that is the sign of a truly well portrayed Devil. Though while you felt the presence of Marguerite and Faust less strongly, together the way the voices of all the characters blended was phenomenal.
Beyond the music, and beyond the emotion explored, there was interesting subtext betrayed in the somewhat distracting set. The industrial, factory-like backdrop might have been referencing the way in which people are exploited. Just as Marguerite and Faust are exploited by the Devil, the supporting actors and singers who work in this setting are exploited by the wealthy and privileged. They are promised prosperity, as Faust is promised youth, but in the end you see the only person who wins is the person who had power to begin with. So while the set detracted from the sense of immersion due to the lack of cohesion, the symbolism of its design is important to keep in mind. And it was interesting to see that the doors to hell were an innate part of the factory.
Faust was worth watching for the opera itself, but it is a test of will to sit through the three hours and twenty minute run time, and a test of endurance to be caught up in the riot of sound and action without a proper visual anchor. Even if the story itself did not immerse me the way I wanted it too, I was engaged in thinking about the power dynamics and the very human desires they explored. They covered issues relevant to any time despite aspects of the opera that were decidedly out of date. And the experience of listening to an opera, of feeling the music, especially with the student discount, is something I feel people should seek out, if only to form their own opinions.
If nothing else, it is an experience.