Is Gounod’s Faust salvageable in any way and should we bother? Alaina Viau and Markus Kopp with the latest Loose TEA production Dissociative Me make the case that we should, and keep the score while rewriting the libretto, originally by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on Goethe. Gone is the religion from the text (yay), gone are all female roles but Marguerite (no yay; no trouser role of Siébel and no contralto Marthe). We are in the present time and Faust is a recent PhD in astrophysics (tenor Kijong Wi), lonely and unemployed, neither a job nor a date on the horizon. In comes Mephistopheles (baritone Michael York) and promises the world if Faust agrees to “stop taking his medication”.
So instead of the discourse on sin, we are within the discourse of mental health, and in this way Viau’s update is very much of its—our–time. Today we prefer talking about criminal responsibility instead of ‘evil’, which to us smacks of Catholic Hell. We find it difficult to analyze (still no better word->) evil acts committed by the perfectly sane, well-educated and comfortable people. Our secular age lacks a discourse on evil, because we’re all too happy to chuck it with the rest of the Christian mythology. This doesn’t solve the problem, alas. And evil as an applicable concept, to echo Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, survives well into our secular age, whether we have the framework for it or not.
Viau could argue of course that in their adaptation, Faust is not evil as much as a nasty date; seducing a woman from a very patriarchal family, impregnating her and abandoning her perhaps isn’t evil, perhaps it’s a bad love practice, perhaps he is just being an unethical slut. Yes, I can go with that. But in the course of Dissociative Me, Faust also lands a spectacular job and acquires charisma. Those are the worldly goods he was promised—and he is finally enjoying them. Marguerite, on her part, ends up being devastated by the abandonment and single-motherhood to the point of killing her newborn and herself. Would that really happen today, or is Mephistopheles again pulling some underworldly strings? The Catholic bits of the original libretto return to Dissociative Me to undermine the mental illness paradigm. The eerie prerecorded sounds heard in some scenes also flirt with the supernatural, but remain ambiguous enough to work (is it the supernatural or is Faust hallucinating, or is it atmospheric music like a film score). Viau and Kopp have approached the rework of the Gounod with seriousness, and for that kudos. They could have, however, gone much further, particularly with the character of Marguerite. The poor soul still gets seduced via a box of jewels.
In any case, the two-sides-of-the-same-person idea works well overall. Viau and Kopp keep the two characters fairly independent until the key scene at the end when Faust’s suicide also kills Mephistopheles, his other face. This is very effective as the final act. I suspect this dual protagonist idea would have worked even without the mental illness: a sane, unmedicalized Faust could have met his darker self and decided to give it full reign. Or perhaps Mephistopheles could stand for or supply some mood- and concentration-enhancing drug to which Faust becomes addicted. It is to Viau and Kopp’s credit that I found myself long after the show thinking about this and Gounod’s Faust in general, an opera I don’t usually rush to contemplate. And this in spite—or perhaps because—of the blind spots in the adaptation. This take on Faust will get opera lovers thinking and talking, even if the execution leaves a thing or two to be desired.
There was probably no money for the set or the props, so the director (Viau) makes the best of the location—the night club RED in the Liberty Village—and some dark curtains. For example, Act 2 happens at the bar, and moves to a coffee shop where Marguerite works. Among the bits of the opera that were cut out is unfortunately also “King of Thule”, Marguerite’s melancholy aria. Her jewellery aria is still there and still as unflattering for the character as in the original libretto (selfies are involved). Soprano Beth Hagerman did her utmost in the ungrateful role, sang movingly and acted credibly. She was innocent when innocence was called for and believably broken in the latter parts.
Michael York was a compelling Mephistopheles who goes by the innocuous name of Lee. The devil’s emissary is usually the meatiest role in any production of Faust, no exception here. York exercised the greatest range of emotions, including forays into comedy. Kijong Wi’s Faust was somewhat single-note dramatically; vocally, however, he was reliably good, with a full-bloodied top and the evenness of tone.
Jennifer Tung at the piano kept the motor running and the vehicle moving. Somebody should write a long piece on the music directors who act as one-person orchestras—where would the Toronto indie opera be without you. Hat tip from us all.
One performance left to go: August 22.
Left: Beth Hagerman as Marguerite. Top photo: l-r Michael York and Kijong Wi as Lee and John Faustus. Both photos by Rachel McCaig Photography.