Thursday 30 September 2010

How grim, to have to live so long

Faust (Gounod) and The Makropoulos case (Janacek), ENO, Coliseum, London

Gounod’s Faust is classic 19th century opera, all hummable tunes, bravado set-piece arias and on-the-nose libretto. But it’s also astonishingly of the moment. Common to all the Faust stories is the theme of a man seizing control of his own fate from God, but in this version Faust has one act of defiance planned, ‘I will choose my time of dying!’

In the opening scene he’s an old man moving slowly and painfully through his cold laboratory, wishing death would take him. He mixes a poison, but hesitates as music, light and an influx of nubile women in white lab coats breath spring into the scene. Euthanasia untasted in his hand, he calls instead for the devil.

In spite of the recurring images of science-gone-bad in this production (the atom bomb seems to have become theatrical shorthand for scientific hubris) this Faust is not motivated by the lust for knowledge, or power over Nature or other people. In fact, Mephistopheles offers him money, fame and glory, but he refuses them all. What he wants is youth, love and passion.  Mephistopheles is very much the showman, his supernatural interventions closer to Derren Brown than anything truly terrifying. In fact, though there’s a strong current of Christianity throughout, it’s largely in the way a Hammer vampire film would use it – holy water revives dead flowers, the sign of the cross makes Mephistopheles writhe in pain, that sort of thing.

First performed in 1859, the opera seems to have its finger on industrial-era Christian belief; Not ready to abandon it, but no longer prepared to take it as gospel. In fact, there’s a subversive moral ambiguity at the heart of Faust’s story – or, more accurately, the story of Marguerite, the girl in Faust’s vision, to whom Mephistopheles brings him in person. Faust’s passion for her is touchingly innocent. He falls in love with her faster than she does with him, in fact, and will not seduce her until she pulls him urgently into her house.

After the light entertainment of the first two acts, the third act turns distinctly dark. Seduced, abandoned and pregnant, Marguerite is reviled by the rest of the village when, as she says herself, her only sin was love. The orchestral fireworks and virtuoso vocal lines are now driving a romantic tragedy. Faust tries to save Marguerite, not himself, from both eternal damnation and the condemnation of her family, neighbours and society.

Janacek’s opera is a different beast. Musically, it’s about vocal settings that enhance the rhythms and pitch of conversation and character, rather than memorable showtunes. There’s powerful, complex orchestral writing but it unsettles and challenges where Gounod pulls the audience along in a river of emotion.

The curtain rises, slowly, on an absurd and bureaucratic world where paperwork cascades from above and lies scattered across the marble, art deco floor of a spacious lobby. In this world, a court case about inheritance, Gregor versus Prus, has been running for nearly a century. But across the comically convoluted legal exposition surges Emilia Marty, operatic diva, first in breathless report by the smitten Kristina, and then in person. From this point on, the opera is hers. She scarcely leaves the stage. She seems to have a stake in the Gregor/Prus case, and it swiftly becomes clear that she is more involved than anybody realises.

The mystery unfolds as she cuts a swathe through the men, who literally queue up with bouquets till the stage looks more like a funeral parlour than a diva’s dressing room. Marty seems to be amoral, caring nothing for the fate of her rejected or abandoned lovers. The only one for whom she shows any warmth is a confused old man who insists they were lovers fifty years before.There’s a comic streak through this production too, but it’s a dark comedy. And, in a sense, it’s the 20th century mirror image of the Gounod piece. Faust wanted only youth and love. Marty has more than enough of both. Love holds no appeal for her now and, unlike Faust, she cannot even choose the hour of her death. In the final scene she has what she wanted, the piece of paper bearing the secret of her centuries-long life, now drawing to a close. But she was not seeking to use it again to postpone death. ‘How grim, to have to live so long,’ she sings to the hapless mortals whose lives she has wrecked, but whom she envies nonetheless. ‘All things for you have meaning… all things have value. You believe in manhood, virtue and progress’.

And it’s no cynical, postmodern dig at their human beliefs. Marty is charismatic, magnetic, but deeply unsympathetic. She cares for nobody but herself and takes no joy in anything. It’s only in this final scene that it’s possible to empathise – with her sense of what she has lost by living for so long.

The Makropoulos Case is based on a play by Karel Capek, to whom we owe the word ‘robot’ from his play R.U.R.. Both plays look at what makes us human, and this one seems to suggest that being mortal is an essential part of that. Having purpose, meaning and moral priorities are more important than limitless time, perhaps. Faust simply wanted another taste of youth and love, and paid with his soul. Emilia Marty was given centuries of youth and love. Even in an age that no longer believed in damnation or a devil, however theatrical, she could still lose her soul and find hell on earth. If Faust had made a contract with longer terms, would he ultimately have become like Marty? Or was he simply written in a more innocent, a more romantic age?

Faust till 16 October 2010
The Makropoulos Case till 5 October 2010


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