Thursday, March 18, 2010

Yet another Faust in Paris

Philippe Fénelon is a French composer [born in 1952], who learned his job from Messiaen [among others], who's apparenty quite prolific [Yours Truly never heard any of his work though], and who's the author of this new Faust, premiered last night at Palais Garnier in Paris [NB the production is of course not new; was premiered in Toulouse three years ago].

Anatomie de la beauté : Palais Garnier

Opera National de Paris, Palais Garnier, March 17, 2010: Faust
Bernhard Kontarsky    Conductor
Pet Halmen    Stage Director

Gilles Ragon  Görg
Arnold Bezuyen Faust
Robert Bork Méphistophélès
Gregory Reinhart Wagner, Le Moine
Bartlomiej Misiuda Le Forgeron
Eric Huchet Le Duc, Le Capitaine
Marie-Adeline Henry La Femme du forgeron, La Princesse
Karolina Andersson Annette
Johan Christensson Kurt
Stanislas de Barbeyrac Hans
Guillaume Antoine Michel
Zoé Nicolaidou Kathe
Ilona Krzywicka Suschen
Aude Extrémo Lieschen
Unlike many others Fénelon didn't take Goethe's Faust as a starting point for his opera. His basis was Faust by Nikolaus Lenau. This is where my problem begins because that work aims at generalizing the Goethe's genius work by extending it to more fundamental questions of life. That wouldn't be a problem per se, if Lenau didn't go for too much making it all look like a salad of unwashed borderline trivial metaphysical and existential questions. 

This Faust is not looking for eternal youth. He instead is seeking for essence of life, for the way to unveil the "secret of life". In doing so he goes from dissecting a dead man's body [to see if "the life" got trapped in the body after a sudden death]; then turns to a more spiritual quest - to religion - but the dogma won't give an answer; and he finally sells his soul to the Devil... which is the beginning of his end. Once his final quest for "the truth" becomes a failure (after he killed a man by his own hand), his life makes no sense and he will kill himself.

You could play around this idea if  Fénelon didn't decide to add a new character to the story: Görg, an observer who follows Faust, who is your "Joe the curious", who also wants to know the secret of life, but the whole question is not too fundamental for him. Contrary to Faust, Görg will survive in the end, and the message that is supposed to come across is that only a man who can accept life as such can face his own existence. In other words: do not ask too many questions (they may kill you!), do not go too deep beneath the surface --beware of the Devil... It is so utterly and despicably anti-intellectual that I was almost angry at the end of the show! It's so regressive attitude, so anti-theatrical...

Musically it is heavily influenced by Berg. For those of you who're curious (but patient!) in a month from now France Musique will broadcast the whole opera on Monday, April 19 , and it will be available on their website for 30 days.

Scenically, Pet Halmen constructs a static show that should satisfy the traditionalists -- it is very descriptive. The images change but very little happen that goes beyond the two-dimensional encounters of the characters.  This opera, its awkwardly derailed story, and the stage solutions are a very good illustration of the current Artistic direction of the Paris Opera: anti-intellectual & trivial.
A few technical glitches didn't help this premiere either.

Too much of decor reminded me a little of that catastrophic production of Andrea Chenier: everyone was floured/white, piles of big white plastic books pushed by some kind of moths (dunno...); There was also Faust on a wooden horse carried across the stage...

To end on the positive note, the light effects were good and  the singers were all good. I particularly liked the voice of Robert Bork  and Karolina Andersson (anyone counting all these fine Swedish sopranos out there?!)

CC pics:
Faust on the top of the scull, while Mephistopheles waves to the crowd from the eye-hole. Black golden-plastic-winged angels are lolling around the scene.

Karolina Andersson, Robert Bork, Arnold Bezuyen, Gilles Ragon, Marie-Adeline Henry

Bernhard Kontarsky (conductor) between Karolina Andersson and Robert Bork

Philippe Fénelon (composer) and right in b/g you can see Pet Halmen (director)

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