Austin Lyric Opera
What the 'Faust' – an opera with a nightclub scene?
Would you be willing to strike a deal with the devil to be young again? How about if you were an aging, depressed scholar, filled with regret and on the verge of suicide? That's the condition of Dr. Faust in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1808 tragic play, so when that old devil Mephistopheles promises the old man another stab at youth for the small price of his eternal soul, Faust sees it as a pretty appealing bargain. Of course, when they broker the exchange for lusty pleasure, all hell breaks loose – literally.
Two hundred years later, the Faustian legend has been absorbed in an endless stream of plays, movies, books, poems, cartoons, and video games. The theme of morality versus lust is ubiquitous and timeless. So, even though composer Charles Gounod's 1859 operatic adaptation was originally set in medieval Germany, director Bernard Uzan has reinvented the production for our modern disposition.
In this wild production, which premiered at Arizona Opera last April, the village fair becomes a flashy nightclub and the prison a bleak psychiatric hospital. You might be rolling your eyes right now, thinking that an updated setting like this might seem sort of gimmicky. That's fair. Usually when I hear of a production like this, I rather skeptically suspect a desperate marketing ploy, since modern settings are among the most common ways for opera companies to generate appeal and keep the operas fresh for audiences. (Incidentally, the Butler Opera Center at the University of Texas is currently running a modernized version of Don Giovanni in which Donna Elvira struts across the stage with a dyed bob cut and an iPhone.)
However, the French-born Uzan, a serious Faust buff who has directed no fewer than 17 versions of the opera – most of them traditionally staged – insists that his motive for this approach is not specifically to attract young operagoers. He believes the modern setting speaks to the universal themes in Faust that are still alive and kicking in our time. The characters of Faust and the Devil are timeless, as is the quest for eternal youth, knowledge, and love. And by the way, Uzan, who holds a doctorate in literature from the University of Paris, isn't messing with the original French libretto or the lush music.
What I find most chilling about the story is that you can't help but sympathize with Faust – even through all of his wrong turns, when the consequences are painful and disturbing. If indeed some young Austinites come to the show instead of heading to Sixth Street, they may be surprised to find the raging bars anyhow: on the stage of Dell Hall. Perhaps they will recognize themselves among the characters. Uzan says, "You don't attract a new audience because you show modern things, but when you show real feelings, when you move people."
Faust runs April 25-28, Thursday & Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 3pm, at Dell Hall in the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit www.austinlyricopera.org.