War, plague, a pact with the devil

Gounod's 'Faust' is being wrapped in a darker, more modern context.

March 11, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

"There are no tights in this production," says director John Lehmeyer, "but lots of leather."

That in itself is enough to pique interest in Baltimore Opera Company's new staging of "Faust" opening this week.

There's always something to be said for not having to see tenors, baritones and basses stuffed into medieval leggings. But this only begins to tell the tale of Lehmeyer's concept for Charles Gounod's 1859 opera, one of the most beloved works in the repertoire.

Based on the 1808 dramatic poem by Germany's revered author Goethe, the opera concerns the ageless issue of selling one's soul to the devil in exchange for youthful pleasures. Gounod's treatment of this story has often been criticized as being too pretty, too French, too removed from the richer, darker elements of the original verses.

The Baltimore-born Lehmeyer, who has staged "Faust" in conventional ways before, wanted to get closer to what he sees as its truth.

"I personally have had a problem with Gounod's version," the director says. "With a name like Lehmeyer, it's no surprise that I grew up with Goethe. The book and the opera have conflicting emotions. The music is quite wonderful, but it's a very different milieu.

"It's like with [the musical] 'Candide.' Voltaire is saying one thing, and Leonard Bernstein is saying something entirely different. The trick is to find a way to illuminate both."

Story updated

The amiable and voluble, if soft-spoken, Lehmeyer did not approach the venture of injecting more Goethe into Gounod's opera lightly.

He's a seasoned director and costume designer whose carefully considered services have long been valued by opera companies around the country. (He could also have picked up extra work from a celebrity look-alike agency, impersonating Tip O'Neill, although the tall, not exactly svelte Lehmeyer prefers to describe himself as "Santa Claus without the beard.")

Restudying Goethe's words convinced the director that an updating of the story would not only work theatrically, but also underline the issues that concerned the poet.

Goethe, placing the story in the midst of Black Death in medieval Germany, gave Faust a reason to despair and to seek release. He accepts the pact with the devil at first because he thinks he will learn how to cure the plague. The failure to do so makes him a more tragic figure, in Lehmeyer's view.

But such motivations do not appear in the opera. Faust longs only for youth and physical pleasures. Lehmeyer has attempted to bring into the picture something of the deeper motivations.

"Within Gounod's music there is tremendous sweetness," Lehmeyer says. "It can be incredibly fragile. But if you perform the opera so it is all sweet and gentle, you're negating everything that happens in the piece. And you don't understand why Faust makes a pact with the devil."

The director was keenly interested in giving that pact plausibility, partly, perhaps, because he can empathize with it -- "God knows, I would sign something to come back as Brad Pitt," he says with a laugh.

Lehmeyer wanted to give the opera a more modern context, reflecting his view of Goethe as "a modernist in his time."

The director decided on World War I as the setting.

"I chose it for the simple reason that the story takes place at a time when there was plague and war," he says. "The plague at the time of World War I was the influenza that killed off more people than the war.

"And you had things like airplanes, the telephone and films, which some people called inventions of the devil. That provided the supernatural element for Mephistopheles."

So Lehmeyer, who also designed the costumes for this production, has the devil and Faust dress as German fighter pilots. Film of biplanes will be projected on a screen to suggest their means of travel.

And Mephistopheles will use cinematic black magic to further his aims. In the opening scene, for example, where Faust views newsreels of the devastation of warfare and the flu epidemic, the devil conjures up a vision of Marguerite on the screen to tempt Faust.

(Footage used in the production includes a 1913 German silent film called "The Student of Prague," which will be projected on the side of a building in the Act 2 "Kermesse" -- Easter Fair -- scene. Bits of a silent film of the "Faust" legend also are planned.)

As for Marguerite, the young, parentless woman who succumbs to the charms of Faust, Lehmeyer finds her character more understandable in light of the new setting.

"It explains why she has an affair with Faust," the director says. "It's a wartime situation. Wartime affects your psyche. You do things you might not otherwise do. Morals are relaxed. You want to live life to the fullest, because you don't know how long it will last."

Soldiers' Chorus

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