For someone who’s got all the knowledge in the universe at his fingertips, Faustus seems oddly preoccupied with metaphysics. Who created the world? What is time? How many heavens are there beyond the sun? Astronomy, of course, being exactly the wrong way to go about amassing a fortune, I wondered why Dusapin’s opera didn’t start with Faustus on the phone to his broker. But this is Faustus’ last night on earth; he’s about to give the devil his due, quite literally, and if there have been riches in Faustus’ life up to this night, one hopes he had the presence of mind to lay away an asbestos suit.
People loved it. People hated it. They thought it was ravishing and beautiful and profound and intelligent. They felt it was hideous and shrill and unmusical and a complete waste of 90 minutes. Reactions to the premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s Faustus, The Last Night on Sunday at the Sottile were concentrated at either end of the spectrum, and George Street rang with passionate voices from both sides as the crowd let out at 9:30 pm, and the reviews have been just as polarized.
It surely wasn’t Romeo et Juliette. A bare, Victorian-style drawing room floated 15 feet above the bare stage, set against a great black backdrop pierced by ten thousand twinkling stars. Faustus sat slumped in a chair, surrounded by globes and astrolabes, and wearing a coat that looked like it had been stolen from Merlin’s closet at the Dock Street Theatre.
The music in Faustus is assuredly not hummable, not that anyone’s going to feel much like humming after watching Dusapin’s musical rumination on existentialism, nihilism, fatalism, and pessimism, in which the lead character, finally drug down to hell after his guardian angel explodes in a fiery flash beside him, finds that it’s completely empty. “Hell is here,” Mephistopheles tells him. “We never left it.”
All that said, I rather liked Faustus. The music was a little beyond me, but it was extraordinary to listen to, full of sharp angles, sudden surprises, bursts of dissonance, and unfamiliar orchestration. It sounded like a living thing, and John Kennedy seemed to wring out the very souls of his musicians in the pit – many of whom I strongly suspect of having made their own deals with the devil. Faustus is just the kind of thing that Spoleto is so good at: pushing the envelope until it tears a little, giving people something to talk about for the other 348 days of the year.
After the show, I spoke with CofC music faculty member and composer Trevor Weston, who’s having a couple of his own works performed in Piccolo this year. After the concert, he offered some brief insight into the visceral reactions Faustus generated in those who’d seen it. Take a listen:
Wanna hear what he’s talking about? Listen to the final moments of Sunday night’s premiere right here (the big boom in the middle = exploding angel).