Opera works because it plunges us into the starkest questions a human being can face. What is the worst that can happen to me? Loss of one’s immortal soul was the great danger that traditional piety held before us. That old-fashioned perspective was abundantly on display at a recent production of Charles Gounod’s “Faust” by the Washington National Opera.
The worldly-wise audience with whom I attended was clearly not too gripped by the possibility of damnation. Perhaps even the composer was not as steeped in Catholic foreboding as he seemed to suggest. And by all accounts, Gounod’s version of the great misalliance with the devil is no longer as wildly popular as it once was. “Faust” may have been the work that opened the new Metropolitan Opera in 1883, but it is no longer a staple of the repertory.
It may be that his unabashedly Catholic portrayal of the struggle between heaven and hell is just less believable. Art rooted in a Christian sensibility is as vulnerable to a draining away as that sensibility itself. The Washington Post’s music critic seemed to say as much in noting that the production seemed a bit out of touch with the times.
But is this the final word on a masterpiece that earlier generations held in such high regard? Can an overtly Catholic opera work for a general audience? Is the Christian take on the alternatives of salvation or damnation just simply too outmoded for today?
The traditional perspective remains within the self-selected setting of Sunday homilies, but does it work on the opera stage in the way that Gounod’s nineteenth-century Paris could regard it? Of course, even in that context, he may have been approaching the limits of presumed audience piety. Is there, in other words, anything universal about the Faust legend and his particular retelling of it?
One of the powerful effects of music in general and opera, in particular, is surely that it draws us toward the deepest levels of existence. Raw human emotions are exposed and we have no option but to engage them as our own.
Like many of my fellow attendees in the Kennedy Center, “Faust” had to contemplate his dwindling powers in the aging process. But, unlike the audience, he was in full-blown revolt against fate. His cry to become young again conjured up Mephistopheles, the spirit that is evil because it insinuates the possibility of cheating life itself.
Even the program notes suggested that it is such a “Faustian” bargain that is the main point of convergence with our world. Yet it is not simply power that is sought. Gounod’s Faust wants to be young again, to feel anew the lusty passions of youth.
Who wouldn’t want to turn back the clock to those heady days of joy-filled excitement? The yearning may arise readily, but a moment’s reflection discloses the formidable drawbacks of endless existence. Life itself would be drained of all meaning as each of its moments loses its special significance.
Mortality can only be cheated at the cost of all that makes life of value. We can neither arrest nor reverse the aging process, despite advances in longevity. Death may be postponed but not avoided. To seek to defeat it is to lose the thread that connects to all that is more real than life itself.
We do not live to maintain physical life but for the sake of everything that outweighs the urge to survive. Even a life full of youthful passions and pleasures becomes tiresome when it no longer leads to anything more meaningful in the relationships that matter to us.
Mephistopheles leads the town-folk in a rousing chorus to Bacchus, but Faust is interested in the deeper transcendence that only love can provide. It’s here that the center of the tragedy unfolds. We begin to see that he wants to obtain love without giving it. His bargain with the devil is to give himself without really doing so. He wants to cheat love. That is why, in the end, he is incapable of love.
The meaning of the opera does not turn on the paraphernalia of souls and an afterlife but on the very real tragedy of self-immolation in this one. As someone who wants to live without paying the price, Faust is incapable of the sacrifice necessary for love. Despite his best inclinations, he is incapable of love. This is what condemns him.
He cannot give himself to Marguerite when she gives herself to him, because he has already resolved to hold onto himself. He cannot say, as she says to him, “I am ready to die for you.”
Faust has determined to cheat death by prolonging life in the same dream that touches our contemporary illusions. He has lost all that makes life worth living. Only those who are prepared to lose their lives will find them. We do not exist for ourselves but for others and it is only in discovering this that we find the life beyond life.
Marguerite, who is the real centerpiece of Gounod’s drama, is the one who sees this most clearly. It’s what saves her, giving her the grace to repent in the end. The tragedy is that it is what Faust too seeks in his false bargain for perpetual youth. The only eternity that is real is the one pronounced in the first affirmation of love when together they declare it as “Eternal.”
The stage machinery of the conclusion by which Marguerite is drawn upward and Faust descends below is merely the externalization of the spiritual choices they have made. By accepting life as a movement beyond itself, Marguerite has transcended life. But by seeking to master life’s conditions, Faust has lost real life irrevocably.
Heaven and hell turn out to be real even, or especially, for those who can no longer regard them as real.
*Image: Marguerite Leaving Church by Ary Scheffer, 1838 [Detroit Institute of Arts]. Faust stands with Mephistopheles to the right.