The Devil Gets His Due

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.