A PERSONAL VIEW FROM BRAD COHEN
After a successful and rewarding season of The Marriage of Figaro at West Australian Opera, we are turning our thoughts and plans towards Gounod’s opera Faust, our next production. And I want to ruminate in this post on what the Germans call reception theory – that is, the history of how a work of art is interpreted and received as the years pass.
Gounod’s opera was actually rejected by the Paris Opéra in 1859, for not being showy enough. As a setting of Goethe’s sombre verse masterpiece, it wouldn’t seem on first glance that showiness would have been a prerequisite! But the Opéra demanded more than drama – their corps de ballet was an important draw for audiences, and the quiet restraint of Gounod’s original version was deemed unfit for purpose. So it went down the road, to Carvahlo’s Théâtre Lyrique, where it had a limited success. When it was revived in 1862, it took off – and in this it anticipates Carmen, which also had a slow start.
What happened next was astonishing. Faust took over the world – much as Carmen has in our current operatic life. It was the opera with which the Metropolitan Opera first opened its doors, and in fact became the Paris Opéra’s most frequently performed repertoire piece. Faust became the touchstone for what opera WAS – its perfume was dispersed into literature, comics, visual art, and journalism. Its popularity reached a peak in 1950 or so – and from that point onwards it experienced a dramatic decline.
The reasons for this decline are worth some conjecture. I used to think that Gounod’s Faust was the worst kind of travesty – sure, the music is NICE, but it traduces the seriousness and intensity of Goethe’s original verse play with French tastefulness and triviality. How can the darkness of Méphistophélès be taken seriously when he sings such fragranced, elegant music? This is about damnation, Goddammit!
Now, a little older, I realise that the opera hasn’t changed, but I certainly have. And this is the nub of reception theory – that works of art have their own personal histories in a wider culture: their DNA remains unchanged, but they are dressed in a multiplicity of fashions, interpretations and reputations by succeeding generations. And Faust is a prime case of this. Its reputation has risen and fallen dramatically over the years.
The production we are shortly presenting in Perth for the first time, that by David McVicar, represented a renovation of the opera when it was created at Covent Garden last decade. McVicar’s brilliance in dealing with the core operatic repertoire is rooted in storytelling which strips accretions away, which goes to the DNA of the work and re-formulates it for us, now. And his production of Faust strips the hackneyed gentility of its performing traditions away, and makes it a psychodrama about Gounod’s own personal struggle between religion and sensuality. It re-introduces the ballet as this sensuality’s embodiment. It is a deeply disconcerting, totally persuasive evening in the theatre. And for me it comes closer than any other to reconnecting us with the power which Faust exerted over audiences 150 years ago.
Until next time,