Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: Faust
Duke Kim (Faust) and Nick Dunning (Old Faust) in INO's Faust. Photo Pat Redmond
Some believe Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera Faust, with its premise of selling your soul to the devil, won’t fly with a modern secular audience the way it once did in the supernaturally inclined 1800s. Clearly they’ve never spent a weekend flicking through Netflix which has more gods, demons and supernatural soul selling than you could shake a stick at. Yet there are issues given that the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré is a shockingly ham-fisted affair. Owing more to Carré's forgotten play Faust et Marguerite than Goethe’s enduring masterpiece. Rampant Christian misogyny, a yawning patriotism, and a central character barely a device in his own story, Faust is a morality opera with dubious morals. Presenting challenges which director Jack Furness tackles but never entirely gets to grip with. Offering as compensation some of the most sublimely staged spectacles ever presented by Irish National Opera. Which, with exquisite singing and Gounod’s score, prove irresistible.
Nicholas Brownlee (Satan/Mephistophiles) and Duke Kim (Faust) in INO's Faust. Photo Pat Redmond
Trying to get ahead of the opera’s dated spiritual entanglements, Furness falls behind them, diluting one set of dated conventions with another. The melodrama of Victorian Puritanism evident in Francis O’Connor’s towering set in which unscrupulously rich men pursue wholesome poor girls from the opposite side of the proverbial tracks. Moustache twirling Satans tempting lusty lads with God fearing virgins suggesting a Charlie Chaplin comedy minus the scampish tramp, even if Gemma Ní Bhrain’s Siébel vies for the job. Indeed, O’Connor’s stunning coal black, chimney stacks and phallic bombs are as much Modern Times as they are a Lowry painting, or David Lean’s Hobsons Choice.
INO's Faust. Photo Pat Redmond
Reframing its battle for souls as a battle between the classes, and the sexes, Faust strains to inject some modern relevance. Actor Nick Dunning as the older Faust, a CEO arms dealer, sells his soul to bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee’s cartoonish Satan, arriving in a flash of sparks like a pantomime villain. Desiring to be young again, Faust’s younger self, tenor Duke Kim, duly reveals himself as a horny little Incel lusting after the ladies. Dunning frequently reappearing, like Scrooge’s ghost, mirroring Kim movements, looking unimpressed with his younger self as he relentlessly pursues the sainted Marguerite. Soprano Jennifer Davis divine as the Paulette Goodard styled good girl seduced by jewels into believing Faust truly loves her. Set, along with O’Connor’s costumes and Sarah Jane Shiels’ superb lighting evoking Chaplin and Dickens more than The Devil Ride Out.
Jennifer Davis (Marguerite) in INO's Faust. Photo Pat Redmond
Until post intermission when Dickens rides out and the devil rides in. In the form of red robed priests full of vicious, judgemental spite. Having failed to get to grips with Faust’s moral and spiritual dimensions, or to offset same with a sturdy psychological foundation, what just about held together in the first instance loses its emotional cohesion. Dissolving from a narrative whole into loosely connected scenes again striving for modern relevance. The abandoned Marguerite, now with a child, rues the loss of her lover. Entering a church seeking forgiveness, she discovers a real hell. Some re-imagined patriotism courtesy of the Soldiers Song falls short as a reimagined anti-war song. Bloodied bodies looking less war victims so much as a tough match at the local GAA. Furness’s furnace doing a far better job at creating a powerful anti-war image. Baritone Gyula Nagy’s Valetin, Marguerite’s brother returning from war and ready to seek revenge for his shamed sister, sees something deeper trying to elbow its way through. His unflinching judgement upon finding her reputation ruined echoing a heartless church as he dies at Faust’s hand. By the time Faust unconvincingly protests his love before Marguerite’s execution for infanticide, having just enjoyed a quickie with a beautiful witch moments before, it’s hard to know why and harder to care. Not helped by it all being the ploy of a lizard tailed, little horned devil who'd look more at home in a cartoon than a morality tale. Making the final moments hard to swallow as Marguerite repents and each reap their respective rewards. Faust again second fiddle in his own opera.
Jennifer Davis (Marguerite) and Duke Kim (Faust) in INO's Faust. Photo Pat Redmond
Looking too old to be modern, and too modern to be classic, Faust proves to be something of a narrative shambles. And yet. Thirty seconds into the opening bars you know you’re in the presence of magic. Conductor Elaine Kelly, along with the Irish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, teasing emotional depths from Gounod’s simple yet profoundly moving score. Music establishing the terms for some sublime voices singing superb arias in French. Singers Kim, Davis, Brownlee, Nagy, Ní Bhriain, along with Mark Nathan, Colette McGahon and a masterful chorus soaring, at times, to divine heights. Individually, in duets, or in some wonderful trios, music and song convey the depths of the soul the libretto fails to evoke. Furness’s compositionally brilliant staging a spectacle of the highest order. Heaving triangles of bodies, sunflowers and chrysanthemums showering the stage like sleeping lemmings, towers becoming cannons; it’s all just that little bit breathtaking.
Elaine Kelly conducting INO's Orchestra for INO's Faust. Photo Pat Redmond
With Faust, which really should have been called Marguerite, the devil is busy seeking souls while God hides behind a Do Not Disturb notice. Allowing a patriarchal, misogynistic Christianity to condemn fallen women even as men escape for the same crime. Doomed to vicious judgements even though Christ refused to throw the first stone. As stories go, Faust is a morally messy tale that's messily told. But then there's that sensational singing, sublime staging, and Gounod’s gorgeous score. Which, under Kelly’s impressive baton, frequently reveals some hidden treasures.
Faust, by Charles Gounod, with libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, presented by Irish National Opera, runs at The Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023 until October 7.