Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Faust & Furious: A Ride with the Devil!

I began this morning at the (for me) ungodly hour of 5 am on WDBJ 7's Morning show. You should be able to cut and paste the following link into a new window (I'm not a savvy enough blogger to know how to disguise these codes):

In between our spots discussing Opera Roanoke's season opening concert, Faust and Furious: A Ride with the Devil! we heard updates on the rescue of the Chilean miners. Tag-lines like "hear Heaven and Hell battle it out before your very ears" assumed an uncanny resonance as the story unfolded before the rapt attention of the world.

This reverberation was underscored when I returned to my office mid-morning (following a visit to a local middle school to talk about opera in general and Faust in particular). One of the Roanoke Symphony Chorus members had left a thoughtful message and shared this quote from the 2nd miner to be rescued, Mario Sepulveda:

"I was with God, and I was with the devil. They fought, and God won."

She noted the proximity of the miner's metaphor to the Faust story the chorus has been rehearsing in preparation for our gala-style concert October 16.

Faust is the most famous work of literature in the German language, and one of those tales that can truly be called immortal. None of the middle schoolers raised their hands when I asked them if they'd heard of Faust, but most of them acknowledged familiarity with the Charlie Daniels' Band song, "The Devil went down to Georgia."

The Faustian Pact or Bargain is synonymous with moral &/or ethical compromise made for material gain. "The devil made you do it," "selling your soul" and "giving the devil his due" are just a few catch phrases for the Faustian arrangement which forfeits the soul for temporal satisfaction.

So everyone knows who Faust is. Many may be unfamiliar with Goethe's Faust or the Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe or Thomas Mann (an allegory for Germany itself in the Nazi era). But Faust has inspired movies from The Devil and Daniel Webster to The Devil's Advocate to Angel Heart (with Robert DeNiro playing the devil with the subtle name of Louis Cyphre). Gordon Gekko in Wall Street can be viewed as a "Doppelgänger" character of Faust and Mephistopheles.

A recent article on a theatrical adaptation of Fitzgerald's great jazz-age novel, The Great Gatsby, described it as "a classic American tale of reinvention, self-delusion and broken dreams." That's an apt description of Faust, who reinvents himself with a little supernatural assistance from Satan to revel in youth and sensual pleasure.

On October 16, Opera Roanoke will present excerpts from the three most famous operatic adaptations of Goethe: Gounod's Faust, Boito's Mefistofele, and Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Some of the music will be familiar to nearly everyone, as Gounod's lyrical melodies, rapturous duets and ensembles earned him the title "the composer of love." And even music which may be unknown to many, like Boito's evocation of the "music of the spheres" in his "Prologue in Heaven" to Mefistofele has the ring of familiarity because of its elemental quality.

The image of heaven and hell in conflict evoked by Mr Sepulveda also reverberates back to the Biblical book of Job. Boito mirrors the introduction to Job by pitting the voices of heaven (the chorus) against Satan (a bass solo, sung by Opera Roanoke favorite Jeff Tucker) over the question of Faust (both Faust and Marguerite are sung by Roanoke audience favorites. Tenor Dinyar Vania and soprano Barbara Shirvis complete our all-star cast of archetypal characters).

During the breaks this morning between the TV interviews, we commented on the story of the miners and the rumor that a movie of the saga was already in the works. I couldn't help but leap to the question of what kind of music would partner the story. The live and unedited coverage needed no soundtrack other than the sounds of human voices and applause. When soundtracks are called for, they work best when using the styles and techniques of musical drama. In opera, music IS the soundtrack that evokes the entire range of emotions, relationships and conflicts that shape human life from cradle to grave and intimate towards the beyond.

Ultimately, Faust is a tale of redemption. Gounod and Boito reinforce this with endings that are nothing short of ecstatic apotheoses. Berlioz stays true to his title (the Damnation of Faust) and literally goes to hell and back. He serves up an example of musical onomatopoeia in his "Pandemonium" that will take your breath away. You may not have time to catch it again before Gounod and Boito enact transcendence itself with some of the most rapturous music ever written. All three composers have enlivened an immortal tale with music of engaging vitality worthy of this complex existence we call the human condition.

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