Lots of existential self-searching masturbation for this Faustus
My advice is to stay away if you’re expecting this Faust to be in any way shape or form like the traditional myth. You know the one: a dude sells out his soul to the devil for wealth, power, love, and knowledge. When it is time to settle the deal there is literally “hell to pay.”
Forget about it. Different show, different century.
Pascal Dusapin’s Faustus, The Last Night references an earlier version of the Faust myth, the Christopher Marlowe morality play of 1604. From that perspective, Faustus could be considered a contemporary morality play. Except in our world we really have no contemporary morality in the way Marlowe’s world did (or we have several versions all competing for club members) and so Dusapin seems to fasten his creative hooks on existentialism, which is perhaps not all that contemporary, but it is the moral compass for most weighty artists and intellectuals in the so-called postmodern world. Too bad Sartre came up with most of the philosophical material (baggage) for this opera over 70 years ago and so its so-called groundbreaking conception may well be in question.
The heart of Faustus, which is more of an oratorio in the stillness of its drama than an opera — in fairness, it does exhibit hybrid qualities — is about the loss of self, the futility of searching for large metaphysical answers, and the romantic attraction of masturbatory self-investigation.
The characters exhibit no individual dimension and all seem to be stemming from one voice, a confused voice that would love nothing more than to find light and meaning but which only circles and circles in quandary. Perhaps the best expression of the constant ambiguity is in the very beginning of the opera with the devil’s apparent intention to take one ladder to climb to Faust only to change his mind at the last minute (before the musical cue) and take the other.
This is a poor devil indeed. He repeats himself senselessly and ceaselessly, seems to know far less about the universe than Faust, and, when pressed to say who created the world, can only reply like Herman Melville’s colorless copyist, Bartleby the Scrivener — “I prefer not to.”
Dusapin’s music exhibits the expected level of angst, difficulty, and sophistication of many contemporary postmodern works. In other words, it’s a bitch to sing and play, and sometimes, if you’re not accustomed to such material, to listen to. He favors long lyrical segments based on static harmony, the same note often occupying the central tonal hub for minutes on end. Over this he spins amazing and elaborate vocal lines that stutter and wheeze, screech and moan, but do it all with beautiful lyricism. These drone segments are broken up with viciously rhythmic interludes that keep things from getting too stale. There are brass effects aplenty, many of which come to us via late-20th century orchestral technique and which have also served elsewhere to pepper the scary moments of many Hollywood horror and sci-fi thrillers.
Dusapin may have intended his music to be the anti-matter, the black energy, to the search for light which plagues Faust, but in the end it is more of a richly-textured blanket that only helps further stifle and stunt any possibility of drama and motion.
Because ultimately the drama here focuses on the central character alone and without a powerful devil or a beautiful angel, indeed with a devil and angel that are only elaborations of Faust’s confusion, there is nowhere to go. This is a one-man play and even Sly, a mysterious drunk who staggers into the set in the middle of the opera, adds nothing substantial, just more existential, self-searching masturbation. The appearance later of Togod (an intellectual word play on Becket’s Godot) also does nothing to raise the stakes, or take the dramatic energy out of its power wash cycle. Though his first false entrance and his second actual entrance are unquestioningly dramatic, Togod’s message has been clear from the first downbeat — there is nothing.
And so Dusapin searches for a climax, beautifully executed with the exploding Angel. He might as well have blown up the rest of the cast and the set with it, however. Then at least his work would have more closely mirrored that other contemporary morality (or anti-morality) of our day: nihilistic terrorism.
After an hour and a half of constant circling, long silent pauses where no one on stage moves, and the doubling and redoubling of the point which was established in the first few minutes, that Faust is confused and can’t find any answers (because — duh! — there are no answers!), the audience can only resort to listening passively to Dusapin’s score and to take whatever it can from that experience, the masterfully-crafted orchestration, for example.
The idea of the set, to suspend Faust’s study 15 feet or so above the stage, seems to unwittingly suggest what is happening here. Intellectual superiority hovers over the audience, purports to teach, to reveal, even to entertain, but delivers nothing, and the players seem to spend most of the opera going up and down the ladders pointlessly. Even Faust’s “ascension” is interrupted in the end. He never quite gets pulled all the way back up and is instead lowered back down to stage level with the burned-out angel, the sleeping drunk, and the devil, who continues to add nothing new.
Lest the reader believe this reviewer hated everything, however, I must hasten to place credit where credit is due. This is a highly-polished production. John Kennedy’s conducting was a unifying force. He kept the ensemble mostly together and allowed it to sing when it could and to roar and groan when it needed to.
David Zinn’s costumes were fabulous and gave the audience something to look at during those eternally long pauses, which may have been designed by the composer to criticize our ever shorter attention spans.
Lenore Doxsee’s lighting was appropriately otherworldly and magical and Carol Bailey’s set modest but intriguing; considering there is another production sharing this theatrical space, simplicity must have been the order of the day. John Hancock as lead baritone is brilliant. His internalization of the difficult score is obvious. He doesn’t just sing the part, he lives it — even executing a hand-clapping mad dance to Dusapin’s difficult rhythms flawlessly and with effortless grace.
At one point one of the characters calls Faust “a dead book.” There is, unfortunately, no better way to characterize this opera. Faustus has nothing to offer — there is no love, no knowledge, no power, no wealth, not even irony. Finally, what remains is an eternally long fade-to-black, a final sighing line in the winds and strings, and the vague feeling that, as an audience, we’ve been had.
Faustus, The Last Night •Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$100 • (1 hour 30 min) • May 29, June 2 at 8 p.m. • Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. • 579-3100