A Thorough Modern Devil Tempts Paris:
A Review of Gounod’s Faust at the Paris Opera

Photo: Charles Duprat/OnP

The talented young German director Tobias Kratzer had the ill fortune of seeing his gargantuan new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust premiere in early 2020. As though cursed by the mischievous devil who inhabits the opera’s plot, it had only two performances before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the theatrical world to a screeching halt. Only now, as the Paris Opéra ended its 2021-2022 season, did it receive a full run of six performances, with the final show arriving, perhaps appropriately, on the eve of Bastille Day—July 13th.

Adapting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s profound drama for the operatic stage presents an enormous challenge. Its explorations of the human condition are so intricate, so nuanced, and so multifaceted that composers have thus far only ever been able to cherry pick elements of it to complement the central narrative of its title character: a scientist who sells his soul to the devil for renewed youth only to squander it by ruining the innocent Marguerite, who is saved through divine intervention while Faust goes to damnation unfulfilled.

Kratzer, who studied philosophy as well as theatrical arts, is already making quite a name for himself and was the subject of a recent New York Times profile, once a sign of some distinction. His 2019 production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, at the famed Bayreuth Festival, cleverly reimagined the medieval romance as a drama between singers at Bayreuth itself. The conceit could easily have gone wrong and veered into impossible self-regard, but Kratzer successfully framed the tale’s tension between the temptation of lustful vice and the promise of salvation as a modern crise de conscience. Instead of a medieval troubadour, Tannhäuser is a contemporary opera singer who falls into a post-modern vie de Bohème and finds his salvation not in courtly romance but in embracing the impossible ideals of high art.

Kratzer’s Faust moves along similar lines. He seeks to unpack the opera’s traditional 19th century religiosity, which has faded in Europe, with modern reflections on the still very relevant spiritual dilemmas surrounding ego, conscience, desire, and reconciliation. The search for eternal youth, he reminds us in a program note, is perennial and not strictly defined by notions of faith. Kratzer’s Faust is a learned older bourgeois type who is introduced while paying for an emotionally unsatisfying sexual encounter with a prostitute. Méphistophélès, clad in severe black with a cape over a utilitarian urban outfit, maintains his supernatural attributes, including the ability to fly in an effect provided by stunt doubles for himself and Faust, to whom he must teach the skill. When he satiates Faust’s desire for youth, Méphistophélès does not simply make him young again, but maintains this youth with a regularly administered pill. In moments of weakness, Faust regresses to old age (his older self is played by a mute actor) and must depend on the devil’s drug to rejuvenate him. The most striking use of this innovation occurs in the seduction scene, when Faust lies prostrate on Marguerite’s bathroom floor clamoring for his pill as Méphistophélès takes his place to ravish the blindfolded maiden.

In a scene often cut from performance, Marguerite ruminates on her pregnancy in the company of her failed suitor Siebel, a trouser role that in this production has a whole aria of cringeworthy dedication to her. The scene is played in a doctor’s office, where Marguerite receives a prenatal examination while Siebel, to whom she otherwise pays no romantic attention, somewhat comically denies that he is the father. Naturally, an ultrasound shows the unborn child sprouting little horns. In the end, it is Siebel rather than Faust whose soul is damned to hell while Faust dies and Marguerite is saved, or at least left alive. For all his efforts, Méphistophélès needs only to claim a soul—whose soul is unimportant.

Photo: Charles Duprat/OnP

The grit of modern Paris grips most of the staging. Marguerite lives in one of those nondescript suburban apartment blocks that populate the City of Light’s undesirable suburbs. Faust’s initial encounter with her unfolds on a rundown basketball court, where Méphistophélès disguises himself by selling Red Bull to the chorus. The dance of their first meeting, set to waltz rhythms, is at a rave. Marguerite’s haunting by Méphistophélès occurs in a car on the Paris metro. The life-size reproduction of the subway wagon is miniscule on stage, but the action is magnified through film projection to take up most of the space under the proscenium. The effect posits the scene’s driving choir and organ music, and Méphistophélès’s darkly intruding judgments, as voices that resound in Marguerite’s head as she rides with only the evil stranger for company. Most spectacularly of all, the witch’s sabbath—the Walpurgisnacht scene—is not a gathering of denizens of the dark side, but rather a wild ride through the streets of central Paris on stolen police horses after Méphistophélès deliberately starts the fire that severely damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in April 2019. While the purist might object to these innovations, they all have a certain logic that serves the work provocatively and even well, if one can accept the work as a renewable parable of something very important in the human psyche.

Thomas Hengelbrock’s conducting sometimes sounded a bit wooden and could have moved the action along with greater passion, but a fine cast of soloists made for an impressive musical effort. I first encountered the French-born, Swiss-raised tenor Benjamin Bernheim in the role of Faust in Chicago in 2018, his North American debut. The voice has grown in confidence and command without losing any of its essential sweetness, which must capture a certain idealism and willingness to believe, even if in the devil. In this production he truly rose to a well earned place in the French tradition of heroic tenors, going back on record to Georges Thill. The American bass Christian Van Horn sang opposite Bernheim in that Chicago production, and he, too, has evolved, giving the role of Méphistophélès greater pluck through a more nuanced characterization. The part’s two arias—“Le veau d’or” and “Vous qui faites l’endormi”—stood out as virtuoso performances. National critics may make a fuss about Van Horn’s French diction, but the vocal effect was indisputably that of a singer rising to the mature phase of a long and distinguished career.

The American soprano Angel Blue made her Paris Opera debut as Marguerite. Her middle range sounded a bit thin at times, but the passion registered on and off the stage. The day after the final performance, she withdrew from her scheduled performances at Italy’s Arena di Verona Festival because it allows the use of blackface in another production. She did not mind Faust’s murder, infanticide, and devil incarnate, or Kratzer’s embellishment with prostitution, arson, and rape, but such are our times. Florian Sempey’s fine baritone resounded well in the role of Marguerite’s brother Valentin, who exists to offer her protection in vain and then get killed. Emily D’Angelo sang with pathos in the production’s expanded role of Siebel.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.