Prior to last Friday, I knew exactly two things about opera:
1) When the fat lady starts singing, it's time to grab your coat; and 2) Never, ever sit under the chandelier. Thank you, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
I can't honestly claim that the Orlando Opera's production of Faust at Carr Performing Arts Centre made me an overnight expert in the art form. But the company's uniformly excellent interpretation of Charles-FranÃ§ois Gounod's opus of sin and salvation worked wonders of its own, revealing the seductive pleasures the genre had held all the while -- for me, and for anyone else who had ever scratched his head at the idea that three hours of librettoed tragedy might equal a good time.
From a storytelling standpoint, "Faust" was a perfect introduction to the operatic tradition. Those of us who grew up on a steady diet of "The Twilight Zone" were already familiar with the concept of a man selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for perpetual youth. With that sort of background in place, it was but a short leap into the land of high culture. And any casual student of history had to recognize that a French version of a German tale of unholy deal-making was simply too deliciously ironic to ignore.
The language barrier, it was clear, would not be a problem. The show's producers had set up a teleprompter that translated the score into English supertitles as the Gallic syllables emanated from the vocalists' mouths. I'm normally not a huge fan of such measures -- I even feel guilty about watching the DiamondVision screens at rock concerts instead of the "real thing" on stage. But any fears I had harbored about the distracting qualities of a running Berlitz-style commentary proved to be unfounded. "Don't worry," a friend of mine (herself a classically trained singer) had assured me. "Opera is so slow that you'll have plenty of time to read."
Apart from incurring slight eye strain, the titles were an invaluable enhancement to my comprehension, though they did inexplicably cut out at periodic intervals. Perhaps they were malfunctioning, or maybe they didn't want to insult my intelligence by retranslating French phrases we had already heard. As if I was capable of opening myself to opera and learning a foreign language all in one night.
Sweetening the pot
Gounod's score was wonderfully accessible, finding plenty of room for major-key melody in the midst of the most demonic of doings. Act II's "Jewel Song" was particularly charming, allowing soprano Amy Johnson to emit some delightful trills as she simulated the glee of a village girl rifling through a box of baubles. That's the closest I'll ever come to adoring a Jewel song, I can tell you.
It was the show's production values, however, that truly made the narrative come alive. Act I began with the elderly Faust sequestered at the back of the stage, encased within a lonely cubicle that receded even further into the wings as his younger half took over. From my stage-right seat, the effect was properly claustrophobic, enforcing a skewed perspective reminiscent of the best surrealist art. With so much of the initial action taking place far from the orchestra, however, it became slightly difficult to discern the actors' facial expressions. The woman on my left did her best to help, graciously offering me the use of her binoculars whenever I needed them.
"I think the ref blew that last call," I whispered as I returned the specs to their owner.
The end of Act I and the entirety of Acts II and III were played out on a center-stage platform that sloped down and to the left, echoing the idea of Faust's gradual descent into misery. Like the cubicle, the ramp was decorated in a pattern of black, white and gray -- a visual stand-in for evil, good and the shaky moral ground in between.
Some of the audience members appeared less than excited by the clever staging. During the first intermission, an older, well-heeled couple loudly voiced their agreement that the Orlando Opera had certainly done better in its time. To each his own. One day, I may be so conversant with the lively arts that I, too, can exhibit such sophistication. Or maybe, if I'm really lucky, I'll get hit by a bus first.
Keep your eye on the money
I wonder if my disappointed friends stuck around for Act III, in which all hell literally broke loose. With the story nearing its climax, stage director Alan Bruun unleashed all of the theatrical firepower he had so wisely held in check during the show's first two hours of restrained symbolism. As Johnson's tortured Marguerite wrestled with her inner and outer demons, a tormenting chorus of spirits appeared out of the mist behind her, brandishing candles in a profane mockery of Catholic ritual. Kurt Link's Méphistophélès followed suit, doffing his white outer robes to reveal the Satanic red satin hidden underneath.
"Cool," I whispered, carried away by the moment. And why not? It was a lot like the Ozzy Osbourne concerts I had once seen, except that no one on stage got drunk and forgot the lyrics.
A beaming Marguerite was carried off to heaven just before the house lights came up, and there was a split-second in which I wondered if my appreciation of "Faust" had been as deep as it should have been. Should I have felt ashamed that, philosophical underpinnings aside, the opera had connected with me predominantly on a bells-and-whistles level? Nope, I decided: It was just the reaction that everyone involved in "Faust" -- from Bruun all the way back to Gounod himself -- had worked so hard to engender. These people are unafraid to tell big stories of life and death, and to do so with all the musical and dramatic overkill they can muster. That's where we get the word "operatic" in the first place.
I had approached my night at the opera hoping to fit into a new and intellectually challenging artistic milieu, and instead left realizing that the evening's hellish tableau had brought me into closer contact than ever with my own personal Beavis. Well, I'll be damned.