Review: Vienna State Opera’s “Faust”

This is yet another endeavor to break out of the happy-frivolous-Italian-opera funk this blog has recently supported. And so I ask you to behold: The ultimate satire on happy frivolous operas.

Satan in Faust opera

Faust is an operagoer’s opera, and is revered because of it’s often-grandeur staging. The Devil (in the guise of a demon-esque figure called Mephistopheles) is there, and the whole bloody tale begins with a deal with him. The doomed doctor in this 1985 production is by Francisco Araiza, a Mexican tenor with a voice robust enough to play any doomed figure he wants. He is presented to us as a tortured Galileo figure. above humanity but still moved by their pleas. He proclaims boldly, “This God, what can he do for me?”

Answering his prayers is Mephistopheles, played by the wonderful Ruggero Raimondi. This rogue steals the show right away. The physicality he brings to the role, from small flicks of his wrist to careless tosses of glitter, makes for a wonderful spectacle. The moment where Mephistopheles turns a cross into chocolate and eats it is the most entertaining in the entire show. Raimondi holds his own, even when presenting himself apart from Faust. We cannot take our eyes off him during his song about the fabled Golden Calf, even with lascivious golden maidens running around.

With this demon in position, we hear Faust’s great wish: To be young again, and pursue love. Mephistopheles grants his wish, and we’re whiz-bang into the plot. Faust sets his eye on Marguerite, a recently initiated nun played by Gabriela Benacková. He attempts to seduces her as any young cad would, with the blessing of Mephostopheles. Eventually, Marguerite is pregnant, and we learn just what kind of man Faust was longing to be again.

Marguerite spinning wheel aria Faust 1985

This show must have been wonderful to watch. I say “must have” because I wasn’t there in the audience back in 1985, when this tape was filmed. That was clearly the more superior experience compared to watching it on video. The audience back in 1985 didn’t have imposed shots of dancers over the action they were watching. They knew which side of the stage Faust’s “delightful vision” was coming from in Act 1. And as a result, they saw the better show.

Moments of brilliance occasionally come through in this production. The direction suggests an inner theme of the arrogance of men, with even Marguerite’s soldier brother Valentin (played by Walton Grönroos) peacocking about the stage. The famous Soldier’s Chorus includes a couple of cancan girls, tending to the “needs” of the returning soldiers. The most sympathetic male character is Siébel, a trouser role played by the wonderful Gabriele Sima. But he is a rare character of complexity, among both men and women. Marguerite’s character at first is deliciously complicated—why did she take Faust’s wooing jewels so willingly, and only refuse them when others were nearby? But she only truly becomes compelling wo watch when she is a “fallen woman.”

It is tragic that we the video audience are deprived of some of the most brilliant and original moments in the show. Faust’s seduction of Marguerite had moments of brilliance. But we they viewing audience couldn’t see them because a shot of the Devil watching them from somewhere on stage was super imposed over the shot. Conversely, the dullest and most stagnant moments are shot without a bit of variation. The prime example of this is Araiza’s Salut, demeure chaste et pure, a pure example of a Park And Bark if I ever saw one. I was literally able to get up and clean the room while the aria played, and feel as if I missed nothing.

Francisco Araiza aria Faust

Also, his constant smug look while singing was extremely annoying.

This definitely isn’t an opera production I would recommend watching. But I’m not happy about it. Opera is still learning how to be a TV- and video-friendly medium. There are versions of operas that are strictly movies, without any pretense that they are being performed in front of an audience. That’s completely fine to do. In fact, it might be a great way to introduce younger people to opera. But Faust, like so many video productions, has not decided what it wants to be. Is it a filming of a live opera performance? A film based on a live performance? No one can decide, and we are presented with a Frankenstein monster of a film. While it has moments of beautiful insight, it falters under the test of fire.

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and random video game sites that feature Sasquatch. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

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