Devil in the Details: José Van Dam Stars in Gounod's "Faust"

Jun 18, 2017

Temptation and morality go head-to-head this week, as WCRB celebrate's Charles Gounod's 199th birthday with his opera Faust, starring baritone José Van Dam!

Charles Gounod: Faust

Faust: Richard Leech
Marguerite: Cheryl Studer
Méphistophélés: José Van Dam
Valentin: Thomas Hampson
Siebel: Martine Mahé
Dame Marthe: Nadine Denize
Wagner: Marc Barrard

The Toulouse Capitol Orchestra and Chorus/Choeur de l'Armée Française
Michel Plasson, conductor

Read a full synopsis of Gounod's Faust.

Read a French-to-English translation of Faust's libretto.

Some operas just burrow into your brain and remind you of our own frailties and humanity, for better or worse. Gounod’s Faust certainly is one such opera, likely to leave you surprised at your feelings. 

The story of Faust is an old one, dating back to the 15th century, with influences far earlier than that. While there are many versions of Faust - the most famous being Goethe's two-part play Faust, on which Gounod based this week's opera - they all are immensely relatable. Central to the Faust tale is how one deals with dissatisfaction in the present, and a craving for greener pastures. They all seem to breathe that old warning: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.

Dr. Faust is a brilliant theological scholar, who after dedicating decades of his life to thoughts on God and the afterlife, finds himself feeling unfulfilled. Instead of yearning for salvation in the afterlife, Faust craves the pleasures on earth that he has missed. He turns his brilliant mind from theology to black magic, and summons the Devil.

It’s the Devil's business to know Faust’s heart, and upon arrival, he offers Faust a deal: the Devil will give the good doctor all his own supernatural abilities, and in turn all of Faust’s wildest earthly fantasies will be achieved. The price is, as always, Faust’s soul in hell.

The doctor agrees, and it is here in the opera where, for many in the audience, the self-evaluation begins. What would you do if presented with the ability to have all your earthly desires, no matter how outlandish or impossible, fulfilled at the drop of a hat? Would you have the strength to withstand the tremendous temptation of your wants and save your eternal soul from damnation? 

For Dr. Faust, the answer is "no." 

With his soul signed to the Devil, the adventure begins. And of course, things don't go as planned. Faust's eye has been on the beautiful Marguerite, and with the Devil's help, he succeeds in seducing her. He then leaves her, pregnant, as the Devil fulfills Faust's earthy desires at every turn. Meanwhile, Marguerite gives birth, is driven mad by her experience with Faust, murders the child, and is sentenced to death. The consequences of Faust's actions are not borne by him, but by another.

In prison, Marguerite prays fervently for salvation and, as the unwitting innocent in this situation, is saved by God and taken to heaven. Faust is made to pay up his end of the bargain and is taken swiftly to hell.

There is something about the way the story is constructed (and, in the case of this operatic interpretation of the story, the music as well) that can leave you hoping for Faust's salvation. Perhaps it's that Faust is so grotesquely faulted with his wants for earthly happiness. Perhaps it is the distance of his fall from grace; the damned theologian. Perhaps it's the nature of eternity that begs the question: does any action deserve an infinite punishment? I don't know the answer, but I do find it is interesting to ponder as you enjoy Faust.

MUSIC

Baritone José Van Dam, in addition to being one of the more entertaining performers to see on stage, was one of the great practitioners of French singing. While he's retired now, in this clip from the taping of this week's 1990 recording, you get a chance to catch the master at his work, as he sings Méphistophélès's aria "Le veau d'or".