Go inside this production of Faust with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
Faust, an aged artist, contemplates ending his life. Carefree voices are heard from outside: the women sing of the joys of nature and love, the men of the beautiful day that will find them reaping their fields. Faust sets down his phial of poison and curses happiness, learning, prayer, and faith. When he invokes Satan, that very being appears, in the debonair person of Méphistophélès. Faust rejects offers of wealth and power, asking instead for youth. The devil agrees to grant his wishes if Faust will serve him later in hell. When the old man hesitates, Méphistophélès tempts him with a vision of a beautiful young woman (Marguerite). Faust now eagerly agrees and is transformed into a handsome young man.
Wagner, a student, leads the townspeople in a song extolling wine and beer. Joining the group is a soldier, Valentin, who holds a medallion his sister, Marguerite, has given him for protection in battle. He prays that God will protect Marguerite in his absence. Siébel, who is in love with the girl, promises to watch over her. Wagner resumes the festivities with a lively song about a rat, but he is interrupted by Méphistophélès, who regales the crowd with his paean to the Golden Calf. He predicts an imminent soldier's death for Wagner and tells Siébel that henceforth flowers will wither at his touch. The local wine proves inadequate for Méphistophélès, and he magically produces his own vintage. He then provokes Valentin's anger with a toast to Marguerite. The soldier’s rage and that of the other men fail to frighten the offender. Having guessed his identity, the men are finally able to subdue Méphistophélès. Faust arrives and demands to meet the girl he saw in the vision. The villagers dance a waltz in which Siébel is asked to join, but the lad can think only of Marguerite. When she appears, she demurely declines Faust's gallant offer to lead her home. He realizes he already loves her.
In Marguerite's garden, Siébel picks flowers for a bouquet, but he discovers that the stranger's prophecy has come true: the blossoms wither. He uses holy water to break the spell, then leaves his flowers for Marguerite and happily departs. While Méphistophélès searches for a suitable gift for Marguerite, Faust reflects on his joy at being near her. The devil returns with a box of jewels, which he places near Siébel's flowers. After the men withdraw, Marguerite appears and sings an ancient song about a king whose beloved has died. When the girl catches sight of the jewels, she cannot resist trying them on. Marthe, a meddlesome neighbor, rejects Marguerite’s notion that the splendid present was left by mistake. Méphistophélès appears and melodramatically informs Marthe that her husband has died. The devil seductively induces Marthe to follow him out of the garden, leaving Faust with Marguerite. Returning to observe the young couple, Méphistophélès calls on the darkness to come to Faust’s aid. As night descends, Faust grows more passionate towards Marguerite, she confesses that she returns his love. The devil urges Faust to wait a moment before obeying Marguerite's wish to be left alone. When she expresses her longing for Faust, he rushes to her.
Scene 1. Marguerite longs for the return of Faust, who has abandoned her. She is visited by Siébel, her only friend who has remained loyal.
Scene 2. In church, Marguerite attempts to find solace in prayer. She hears the voices of demons calling her name and Méphistophélès looms before her, threatening eternal damnation. The choir sings of the Day of Judgment, but the devil interrupts them, tormenting Marguerite until she collapses.
Scene 3. The villagers turn out to welcome the returning soldiers, Valentin among them. Siébel arouses his suspicions by evading questions about Marguerite. When the remorseful Faust appears with Méphistophélès, the devil pauses to sing a derisive song. It draws Valentin, who challenges his sister's seducer to a duel. Valentin is fatally wounded by Faust, whom Méphistophélès urges to flee. A crowd gathers and is horrified to hear the dying Valentin curse his sister.
Marguerite has borne Faust a child, but she has killed it and is now in prison, having been condemned to death. Faust comes to her cell, but her joy at being reunited with him quickly fades when Méphistophélès appears. Marguerite prays to the angels of heaven and with her last breath repulses Faust, while a celestial choir proclaims her salvation.
To be young again – that’s what Faust longs for, and it’s that wish that proves his undoing. None of us want to end up as he does, but at the same time, all of us of a certain age can instantly understand the urge to rediscover the ecstasy of a more innocent time in our lives.
Charles Gounod’s Faust is, for many of us, like a beloved friend whose reappearance in our lives we welcome with joy. For others in the audience, this opera will be an exciting new discovery. Whatever your experience of Faust, it will give you what everyone craves above all in the opera house – glorious music and riveting theater.
For more than a century Faust was frequently regarded as a sweet, sugary confection, although graced with a wonderful, ever-fresh score. In recent decades, however, we’ve become increasingly aware of the darker colors and the profound emotions of the piece. I’m referring not just to the title character but also to the sufferings of the heroine, Marguerite - her emotional arc in this opera has a devastating cumulative impact. As for Méphistophélès, he’s a villain both charming and sinister. The supporting roles have tremendous appeal, as do Gounod’s marvelous scenes for chorus.
I’m thrilled that we’re able to present this familiar favorite in a magnificent new production. It marks the eagerly awaited theatrical debut of John Frame, recognized internationally as one of the most brilliantly innovative sculptors of his generation. As production designer, John is part of a truly exceptional team that also includes director Kevin Newbury (whose Lyric credits include Anna Bolena, Norma, and the world premiere of Bel Canto), set and costume designer Vita Tzykun, lighting designer Duane Schuler, and projection designer David Adam Moore. All of these superb artists have created a provocative new view of Faust while at the same time remaining utterly true to the spirit of the work.
At Lyric we’ve been fortunate indeed to have Emmanuel Villaume on the podium for many French works. It’s inestimably valuable to our cast, chorus, and orchestra to have the benefit of Emmanuel’s immaculate sense of style, so essential to any performance of French romantic repertoire.
All of us at Lyric are very excited by this new production, the culmination of our 2017/18 mainstage opera season. We hope it awakens your eyes and ears to all the beauty as well as the drama of Gounod’s immortal Faust.
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How do you define the appeal of this piece? It’s one of the most iconic, legendary stories of all time.
I just turned 40, so I’m not quite ready to be younger again, but I can imagine a time coming when, if I had the chance to live my life again, would I want to go back and revisit certain moments? Faust is about the deals we’re willing to make with ourselves. The music in Faust is so unbelievably gorgeous, and the characters are so rich. It’s also a very human story. Our production is larger than life, so if you like film and visual art -- say, Tim Burton movies or Star Wars or other contemporary situations seen through the lens of a legendary story – whether it’s in space or in stop-motion animation – I think it will appeal to everybody.
Was there a takeoff point for you in preparing Faust?
The main influence for this production is the sculptor/artist/filmmaker John Frame. Everything is based on his world of stopmotion and sculpture, and the strange, beautiful characters he’s created over the course of his life.
What connections can you make for a modern audience?
I think everybody is considering questions of good vs. evil, which makes Faust the perfect piece for right now. As Faust fulfills his fantasy of being young and pursuing love and adventure, it’s a perfect time for us to ask ourselves a question: what does it mean to be young and gallant and treat women well? Like many operatic characters, Faust doesn’t treat women well. So does he learn his lesson at the end? I think he does – and he gets incinerated for it. Take that!
Do you have a favorite scene?
I really love the opening and closing of the opera, especially how we’re doing it at Lyric. During the beautiful introduction you see Faust in his workshop, trying to see the outside world through his creations and his art. Then, after signing the deal with Méphistophélès, he has to go out and be part of the world. At the end he learns a lesson, but he learns it too late. When you sign a deal with the devil, he’s going to come and get you at the end.
The role of video and projection is so important in this production.
Yes, it’s a driving force behind the design. Not only does John make movies and animate his own content; everything in his work is about lenses, and how you see the world – what lens you look through to recalibrate things in a different way. We’re expanding that into a video and projection vocabulary that can surround the whole stage, often viewed through windows or different portals. Many great stories, from Alice in Wonderland to Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, animate the idea of going into some magical land and crossing over to the other side -- in this case, crossing over into life and, in the end, into death.
I know you’ve been thinking about Faust in relation to Leonardo da Vinci…
I think of Faust as being, like Da Vinci, a scientist and an artist, someone who sees the world in a completely different way. He’s someone who, in our production, can combine the varied disciplines of film, visual art, music, and science, and to try and understand what it means to be human, which is also, not by coincidence, exactly what John Frame does in his work. There’s a certain element of science meeting the humanities and the arts that intertwine in our vision of Faust, and we set all that up at the beginning. You see Faust’s sketches on the wall, and very scientific, artistic sculptures that, to me, look more human than any human being could express onstage – which is what opera singers do, too, in a way. In Faust we have a perfect fusion of science and art, good and evil, with gorgeous music!
Will the audience recognize the individual scenes – workshop, town square, garden, prison, and so on – that we know from traditional Fausts?
In my own aesthetic as an opera director, I tend to veer away from literal representations. For me, the whole story is in Faust’s imagination. In our production he creates the character of Méphistophélès from his own soul, from his own hands. You see him sculpt Méphistophélès. He actually wills him into being with his own hands. The story is about the dueling forces of good and evil within himself. The action and the space transform throughout the evening to reflect this vacillation as seen through the lens of John's work. The whole thing is in Faust's imagination. Or is it?