Gounod, C.

The Devil Gets His Due

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The world of opera is gen­er­ously pop­u­lated by an assort­ment of unsa­vory, even nasty and some­times down­right evil char­ac­ters, some of whom employ magic and the super­nat­ural in their quest of wreak­ing havoc on the unsus­pect­ing. But even though opera as a genre does not flinch from explor­ing The Dark Side of life, there are remark­ably few operas in which the Devil him­self actu­ally appears onstage. Two of them — Gounod’s Faust and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress—enter the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s reper­toire this spring, offer­ing audi­ences the oppor­tu­nity to pon­der what would seem to be a conun­drum, Why is it that the attain­ment of our heart’s deep­est desire is only pos­si­ble by enter­ing a pact with the Devil which, inevitably, leads to our eter­nal damna­tion? Why does it seem that behind every delight and plea­sure, ret­ri­bu­tion lurks in one form or another?

Faust pre­miered in 1859 and quickly became so extra­or­di­nar­ily pop­u­lar as to almost be ubiq­ui­tous, even inau­gu­rat­ing the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House on Octo­ber 22. 1883. For sev­eral decades audi­ences could not get enough of watch­ing the aged philoso­pher Faust sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for a sec­ond chance at youth and the oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence the bliss of desire. (In Goethe’s orig­i­nal, more pro­found telling of the story, Faust bar­gains not specif­i­cally for youth and young love but says,  “If to the moment I should say:/Abide, you are so fair – /Put me in fet­ters on that day,/I wish to per­ish then, I swear.” Per­haps Gounod’s libret­tists felt their audi­ence could more eas­ily relate to the desire for a sec­ond chance of youth and romance than to the more amor­phous quest for the sin­gle per­fect moment.)

A dev­il­ish Mar­cel Journet

The opera might be called Faust but the juici­est role is Méphistophélès who, sum­moned by Faust, makes his appear­ance to five for­tis­simo chords played by the entire orches­tra. “I am here. Is that so sur­pris­ing?” Méphistophélès asks the aston­ished Faust. “Does my appear­ance dis­please you?” And imme­di­ately the orches­tra begins giv­ing us clues about what kind of guy this par­tic­u­lar Devil is. His first ques­tions are all fol­lowed by four soft, quick notes from the flutes, bas­soons and fourth horn, accom­pa­nied by two eighth notes by the strings. The music is play­ful, ele­gant, slightly mock­ing, the essence of a man very much in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion and thor­oughly enjoy­ing it.

It is true that Faust takes the ini­tia­tive by sum­mon­ing Méphistophélès, and it is Faust who asks what the price will be for the Devil work­ing his super­nat­ural pow­ers on the philosopher’s behalf. He does not go blindly into the deal with Satan, he knows exactly what the price will be before he signs away his soul. He is fully aware of the con­se­quences and even hes­i­tates at the cru­cial moment — Méphistophélès has to sum­mon a vision of Mar­guerite to nudge, or entice, Faust into the final step. But once Méphistophélès steps on stage, he dom­i­nates the action and delights in it, while seduc­ing us into enjoy­ing his delight.

Pol Plançon

There are basses who have tried to make Gounod’s Méphistophélès a car­i­ca­ture of loath­some evil, the vocal equiv­a­lent of the Bible’s descrip­tion of the Devil in I Peter 5:8 as being “like a roar­ing lion, [who] walketh about, seek­ing whom he may devour.” But how many peo­ple would will­ingly hang around a roar­ing lion set on devour­ing them? Far more entic­ing is the Apos­tle Paul’s ver­sion in II Corinthi­ans: “Satan him­self is trans­formed into an angle of light,” which is much closer to Gounod’s Devil. An “amal­gam of debonair grace and cyn­i­cal men­ace,” is the way critic Paul Jack­son summed up the role, and lis­ten­ing to record­ings of great Méphistophélès like bass Pol Plançon (who sang the role 85 times at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan between 1893 and 1908) one can under­stand why every­one is so taken in by the guy. A critic for The New York Times describes Plançon’s Méphistophélès as “a boule­vardier,” a man about town, the kind of guy Faust, actu­ally, would like to be in his sec­ond youth, which is why he leans on the Devil for help, advice and instruc­tions when it comes to woo­ing Marguerite.

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion between the Devil and his vic­tim is even more closely drawn in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which pre­miered in 1951, almost a cen­tury after Gounod’s Faust. In the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury opera there is no magic potion, no overt sum­mon­ing of the Devil. Tom Rakewell merely says, “I wish I had money,” and instantly a stranger appears and informs the young man he has been left a for­tune by an uncle Rakewell never knew. Per­haps it is Rakewell’s unthink­ing youth which blinds him to the true iden­tity this mes­sen­ger, but Stravinsky’s libret­tists W. H. Auden and Chester Kall­man give man the name “Nick Shadow,” which leaves no doubt in the minds of the audi­ence as to the man’s iden­tity: “Old Nick” being one of the Devil’s many names, and “Shadow” being the dark side of every human being.

Those unpleas­ant and immoral aspects of our selves which we would like to pre­tend do not exist or have no effect on our lives — our infe­ri­or­i­ties, our unac­cept­able impulses, our shame­ful actions and wishes — this shad­owy side of our per­son­al­ity is dif­fi­cult and painful to admit,” writes Rob Hopcke in A Guided Tour of The Col­lected Works of  C. G. Jung.

The shadow is, in truth, a dev­il­ish form,” observes June Singer in Bound­aries of the Soul, “and just when you think you know who he is, he changes his dis­guise and appears from another direction.”

Igor Stravin­sky

Tom Rakewell, who has no desire to work for a liv­ing and plans to rely on the favor of For­tune, only has to express as wish and his shadow, Nick Shadow, grants it. Every wish appears, as if by magic, just by the wish­ing itself. But none of the wishes last, and Tom ends up dying insane in Bedlam.

Per­haps one of the rea­sons our delights fade, and some­times have unpleas­ant con­se­quences, is to be found in the root of the word itself. “Delight” comes from the same root as “to snare” or “to bind,” and is closely related to “a noose.” Our delights can hang us, and we do it to our­selves by remain­ing uncon­scious of the roots of our desires, even if we blame it all on the Devil.

In the first scene of  The Rake’s Progress, Nick Shadow thanks Rakewell for tak­ing him on as guide and says, “for mas­ter­less should I abide/Too long, I soon would die.” What a con­cept, that the Devil needs us or he dies? In the Epi­logue, Shadow explains, “Day in, day out, poor Shadow/Must do as he is bidden.”

Nick Shadow needs Tom Rakewell as much as Rakewell needs Shadow for the ful­fill­ment of his wishes. Méphistophélès needs Faust as much as Faust needs him. What a para­dox. Or is it?

If I can stay with my con­flict­ing impulses long enough, the two oppos­ing forces will teach each other some­thing and pro­duce an insight that serves them both,” notes Robert A. John­son in Own­ing Your Own Shadow. “This is not com­pro­mise but a depth of under­stand­ing that puts my life in per­spec­tive and allows me to know with cer­tainty what I should do. That cer­tainty is one of the most pre­cious qual­i­ties known to humankind.”

This arti­cle appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2003.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is Eugene Delacroix’s “Faust and Mephistophe­les,” 1826 – 27.