Charles Gounod’ Faust
after the Goethe tragedy enjoys pride of place among the operas that captured Russian hearts back in the 19th century. The opera almost immediately gained popularity in Russia. The Bolshoi Theatre staged the first version in 1866, just seven years after the Paris premiere.
Faust is quite literally part of Russian and Moscow opera culture. Among the exited admirers of this piece was a young doctor who later became a famous writer and playwright, Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940). Gounod’s opera is a recurrent character in Bulgakov’s work, and it is mentioned in the novel Master and Margarita.
The Novaya Opera Theatre presented its Faust in the year of the 150th anniversary of the opera’s Moscow premiere, and of the 125th anniversary of Mikhail Bulgakov’s birth. In this production, made by stage director Ekaterina Odegova and dramatist and opera critic Mikhail Muginshtein, Goethe’s and Gounod’s characters will possess recognizable Moscow features.
Says Ekaterina Odegova, Stage Director:
“What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?… Do you want to… enjoy naked light? You are stupid”.
Mikhail Bulgakov. The Master and Margarita, a talk between Woland and Matthew Levi
In playing with Marguerite and Faust – light and dark, Mephistopheles represents the dialectics of good and evil, raises these forces to the absolute and observes. The demoniac source of energy for life and death is an ever-changing, destructive, but also irresistibly captivating thing. It is a narcotic for the restless Faust: “Satan, have mercy on my long distress!” (Charles Baudelaire). Signing the contract with Mephistopheles is a mere formality, a trick. Mephistopheles will get Faust’s soul de-jure, but he already possesses it de-facto. Even before appealing to Satan, Faust curses faith and God. For him Dieu (God) is identical to Rien (Nothing). God is something permanent, complete and ideal. The embodiment of the Divine on the earth is Marguerite, a romantic’s woman. But in the end, the ideal woman for a romantic is a dead woman. Only the death of an ideal can be proof of its phenomenon (from Wagner’s Senta to Verdi’s Desdemona). That’s why for Mephistopheles Faust is not the aim, but a means to achieve it in the struggle for the maiden’s soul. And Marguerite saves her soul with the light of faith and integrity. No matter how the loving soul suffers, its suffering will never win it joy, though it might come to realize itself, wrote the poet Fyodor Tyutchev. Marguerite’s exhausted, hard-won soul deserves the light. The journey of the romantic Faust is over. He has seen God in Marguerite. But Faust deserves neither the light nor peace…
The three main characters are associated with three scenic leit-motifs: light (from a light bulb to jack-o'-lanterns), movement (the devil’s energy), a handkerchief. An armchair scientist (Faust) and an ecumenical philosopher (Mephistopheles) contrast not only in the scale and way of learning, but also in its tool. Faust’s devices and instruments are useless before the optics of the Devil’s camera obscura. In conclusion we’d like to emphasize the fact that the action is not linear, the journey through time and space dictates the form: from Faust’s black study to Mephistopheles’ black study (Acts 1 and 5), through a medieval German town (Act 2) and a romantic garden (Act 3) with their mirror reprise (Act 4).
Says Mikhail Muginshtein, Dramatist:
The German-French matrix Goethe-Gounod will appear not only in the traditional way, but also in a dialogue with Bulgakov’s “faustianism” (when a student, the writer saw the opera41 times!). The culturology of the novel Master and Margarita is in many aspects determined by Bulgakov’s specific projection of Goethe and Gounod onto the Moscow ground. The coincidence of the heroine’s name, Margarita, is quite deliberate (the German opera has the same name). Allusions with an inner ring are also obvious: Goethe’s tragedy is reflected in the novel not only directly, but also through the mock mirror of Gounod’s opera (there are a number of peculiarities). Inspiring are not the parallels, but the intricate optics of the novel: interreflections of the semantics, playing with time and space (Satan “was at Pilate’s, and he was also at Kant’s for breakfast, and now he is paying a visit to Moscow”), avoiding simple linear action, etc. It is not that easy to re-intonate “the most operatic opera”. Making play around /Faust/’s clichés, an attempt can be made to accentuate again in the myth of European culture the ever-relevant problems: “human condition in the world”, the eternal choice between good and evil.