Saturday, April 28, 2012

Royal Opera House: Charles François Gounod's 'Faust'

Angela Gheorghiu stars as Marguerite alongside a wonderful cast of operatic superstars, including Roberto Alagna, Bryn Terfel, Simon Keenlyside and Sophie Koch, in David McVicar's spectacular 2004 production of Gounod's best known opera, "Faust,"for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London, England. The conductor is Antonio Pappano. This production was the Royal Opera Company's first performance of Gounod's Faust in 18 years.

The five-act grand opera was composed by Charles François Gounod and the French libretto written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, from Carré's play Faust et Marguerite (1850). This, in turn was somewhat based on on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, Part 1. The opera made its premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris on March 19, 1859.

The opera was not initially well-received in Paris. After going on tour in Italy, Germany, England and Belgium, it returned to France in 1862, where it became a recognized hit. It is not performed as much as it used to be, primarily because it is expensive to mount such a lavish production with its full chorus and lavish sets and costumes. It is interesting to note that  "Faust" was the first opera that the Metropolitan Opera in New York City performed for the public on October 22, 1883.

The story is a familiar one, as the term Faustian bargain has entered the language of many nations and peoples. It is very much a Christian tale of striking bargains for apparent gain with Satan, humanity's adversary and accuser, and in the process gaining nothing of real value. Except, perhaps, youth and sensual pleasure, which is the case in a more modern rendering of Faust set during France's Second Empire (1852-1870). Such a tragic tale has universal appeal. To set the scene, here are the notes for Act I [The synopsis can be found here.]:
Alone in his study, the aged Dr. Faust despairs that his lifelong search for a solution to the riddle of life has been in vain. Twice he raises a goblet of poison to his lips but falters when the songs of young men and women outside his window re-awaken the unfulfilled passions and desires of his youth. Cursing life and human passion, the envious philosopher calls on Satan for help. The Devil appears, and Faust tells him of his longing for youth and pleasure; Méphistophélès replies that these desires can be realized if he will forfeit his soul. Faust hesitates until the Devil conjures up a vision of a lovely maiden, Marguerite. A magic potion transforms Faust into a handsome youth, and he leaves with Méphistophélès in search of Marguerite (Duet: "A moi les plaisirs").

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