Saturday, May 05, 2012

Michael Dailey's Faust at Opera San Jose, a Review

I hadn't realized that the composer of Faust, Charles-Francios Gounod, the most influential and celebrated French composer of the late 19th century, also composed Romeo et Julietta. Faust is the story of a man facing a midlife crisis who makes a terrible deal with the devil. Méphistophélès or the devil incarnate, promises the aged scientist youth and good looks if in turn gives Satan his soul at death.

Okay, sometimes one gets busy with career and other secular distractions and forgets what's most important in life, love, friendship, companionship, but the answer is not necessarily to sell one's soul to the devil just because one is in love with a woman too young to take one's romantic advances seriously, now is it?

Well Dr. Faust thinks so, so intrigued is he by the beauty of young Marguerite, whose brother tells her to stay away from the old man and she obeys, initially. Wooed by another youth whom she is not as attracted too, Siebel, (portrayed by a woman, which I found distracting) Marguerite can't get the handsome stranger Faust out of her mind--flowers have nothing over the jewels, Méphistophélès or the devil incarnate leaves for her in the garden.

Which will she choose: flowers or gems? The gems win and as she tries on the earrings, necklace, bracelet, tiara, one sees that Faust finally has her, all he has to do is appear, which he does.

One thing leads to another and the innocent Marguerite is overcome with passion and succumbs to Faust's desires. They make love and then ironically, Faust leaves her to bear their shame. What saves Marguerite, which is also what makes her so charming, is her self-reflection, her belief in love and her belief in the goodness of a creator who is more powerful than the evil represented by Méphistophélès, whom Margarite tells Faust "has fire in his eyes."

She is arrested for aborting her child, which I believe, Satan kills when he tries a two for one (soul) deal and Margarite's angels save her from him, once again. The battle for these human souls, first Faust's, which he gets and then Marguerite's which keeps slipping beyond his reach is a contest; the audience is never quite sure Marguerite will win, since she is keeping company with a man who has no future.

Though it all though the woman keeps up her prayers.

Does Marguerite's love or love itself offer promise to souls lost between the present and what is to come? Can love save Faust's soul? Is love, true love, a gift from God, who is more powerful than Satan?

The church scene where an intense battle ensues between Marguerite and Méphistophélès. It is a really powerful moment; there Marguerite is praying and Méphistophélès comes in and takes the congregation's thoughts away from God, distracting Marguerite who feels his presence.

I like the way she acknowledges Satan's presence, his spirit, and doesn't give up, rather prays harder. She even climbs on her chair in the pew to put her physically closer to the angels and to God, a place Méphistophélès has a hard time following. He is frustrated and angered that he just cannot interrupt this woman while she prays--

His influence is temporary, so he leaves her there, frustrated, his task incomplete. The actor who sings this role is awesome, really awesome: his vocal range and power is matched well with that of Jouvanca's character, his antagonist (smile). He will never win Marguerite over; her life is protected by her angels and because Faust's life is now linked to hers, herein lies his potential savior. This Satan knows and is trying to prevent.

The sets and lighting are fantastic, from the tavern where where Faust first sees Marguerite walk by, to the garden where all the trouble begins--hum. Sounds like another biblical story in reverse, to the final scene where the two Faust and Marguerite walk into heaven. The sets are painted on canvas. The foreground often reflected there. It's really unique as it offers one an intimate invitation to join the characters in their world which is right there in front of us.

I didn't remember the ending, so I wasn't aware that Marguerite wins, that good wins over evil, that Marguerite's angels are more powerful than Méphistophélès, that the love of a good woman can literally save a man from hell (smile).

I kept expecting Faust to lose his eternal youth, but I guess Méphistophélès's gift once given was unable to be returned or taken, at least in this story. I wish Robert Johnson, another famous man who traded something precious with the devil, had had an opportunity to live a bit longer. It's a different story with Johnson and the women in his life were too many to have a Marguerite effect on him, but it's just a thought (smile).

The cast was phenomenal, the music extraordinary, costumes impeccable as well. What a wonderful role for Michael Dailey to complete his four year tenure with the company, Opera San Jose. He played "Romeo," in the other famous Gounod opera, and concludes with the role of "Faust," another lover, older than the youthful Romeo, but just as confused (smile).

If you missed Michael and Jouvanca in Faust, you can still catch the other cast tonight May 4 and tomorrow afternoon May 6 at the California Theatre in San Jose.

On another note, the composer was born in June 1818 and after losing his father when he was four fell in love with opera after seeing Othello. Faust is actually based on the story of a real character, a "Johann Georg Faust, born in the late 15th century in Helmstadt (which might be the family name not birthplace)" (Hancock). He is described as a doctor of philosophy and physician, an chemist, an alchemist and astrologer and a magician, a role which pushed him into the realm of blasphemy. Johann Goethe wrote a story about Dr. Faust where he portrays him as a man hungering for knowledge--I remember this version in an opera called The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, commonly referred to simply as Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe performed by the San Francisco Opera. In this story, it's not love or youth Faust is after but certain immortal secrets he can't seem to reach through traditional means, so he calls on the angels, both good and evil to help him and Méphistophélès shows up.

In this version at Opera San Jose, the composer, Gounod who entered seminary as a youth and certainly influenced in this retelling of his Faust where the angels best the devil. He and his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre choose Goethe's Faust Part 1 which focuses on Marguerite and the heroine's dilemma. The story while still called Faust, does not center on his story, it is about Marguerite's choices and temptation when presented with this dashing figure, Faust. What does she do with this irrational attraction to a man clearly above her station or out of her class? How does she handle his gifts? Who does she ask for guidance when her big brother goes to war? He brother tells her to pray which she does, and when he returns and sees the mess she has gotten into with this Faust character, he curses her as he takes his last breath.
So much for brotherly love and advice.

Marguerite is on her own; she sees something in Faust that is like what is in her own soul. True, the relationship is rough, but she believes in him. She uncannily knows that he regrets his deal with the devil, but doesn't know how to undo it or remedy it, so she teaches him how to pray.

Faust, finally is a story about agape or God's love and forgiveness. God forgives. All we have to do is ask for it, which Marguerite does for herself and for Faust, the man she loves. Faust then removes the yoke around his neck and submits. Though the sexual intimacy between the actors Michael and Jouvanca is forced, at one point, Jouvanca's Marguerite puts the doctor's hands on her body--they stand so close yet he does not touch her, their singing is not forced.

I wonder why there is this absence of passion. This is why the scene on the floor with her which concludes the second act where "Faust and Marguerite are drawn irresistibly together" rings false (Synopsis).

Jouvanca's passion for God, her fear of evil she feels lurking besides her and her belief in her angels' power to defeat this evil is felt each time the actress opens her mouth, which is plenty in the last two Acts. Her final duets with Michael's Faust are also lovely. I think Michael's Faust is more comfortable in the laboratory, but Marguerite, simple peasant girl though she is, will teach him how to love her I am sure. The next chapter is . . .

To be continued in Heaven (smile).

God trumps Satan every time, but Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste as Marguerite does a heck a lot of singing for her supper/supplication (smile).

Closing night for Michael and Jouvanca was bittersweet. One saw the actress wiping away a tear as the audience saluted Micheal Dailey whom many had come to love over the past four years. I will certainly miss him at Opera San Jose, yet hope to see him elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area in title roles.


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