The “Faustian Bargain.” If someone sacrifices anything for unlimited knowledge or power, they may have made a deal with the devil. Here, the Stage Director of Faust et Marguerite, Patricia Weinmann, lets us into the world of Boston Opera Collaborative’s retelling of the classic Gounod opera.
Can you tell us about the “distillation” of this production? What’s been cut? What does that mean for the show in terms of the narrative arc?
The narrative arc hasn’t changed at all. What we’ve done is focused in on the four main characters and then primarily the two, Faust and Marguerite. We have cleaned out the plate, so to speak, of the chorus, the drunk students, the chorus. Valentin – he is not a central character in this opera. Originally, he didn’t even have an aria. That famous aria was added later for Covent Garden because the baritone wanted an aria. There is a scene near the end where he was killed, but it was still not elemental to the story. The opera is really about Marguerite and Faust. So, for us, it’s an opportunity to really have this luxury of focusing in on these characters because there’s not a lot of static around. For me, as a director, it’s a luxury. And I think for the performers too, it’s a luxury to do that.
As a director, the least satisfying for me anyway is choreographing enormous drunk student scenes, soldiers – that to me is not interesting dramatically. It’s a lot of color, it’s a lot of activity, but dramatically it’s not interesting. To be able to push that away and see what’s there. It’s almost like panning for nuggets. It’s looking for the essence. We’ve had such rich conversations about characters’ motivations and interactions, and their journey and their arc and what happens. If you think about Faust, a lot of people say, “Poor Marguerite, and Faust is a bad guy.” When you see it like this, you get to know him as a person and see that he, like all of us, has made a terrible mistake. At the end, he’s filled with intense grief and remorse. It’s too late for him. But he’s a real human being. You really see what happened with him. He went in as a joke, but came out the other end realizing that he loved her deeply. Or at least cared about her deeply as a human being.
I’m curious about the two casts and how they present different stories, if they do.
I don’t feel myself so much as a director, although I have a vision for this show and it’s been consuming me for months. But I feel that my role is more of a guide. Everyone, because they’re unique individuals, they’re bringing their own perspective, their own history, their own feelings about bad decisions and regret – about falling in love, about loving someone deeply. Siebel represents unconditional love. He loves her even when everyone else has rejected her because she’s completely abandoned once she becomes pregnant and gets abandoned by Faust. But he’s that beacon of love. Those two people bring their own stories about that, so it’s lovely having different casts. They’re bringing their own gifts and beauty to it.
Have you directed Gounod operas before? What do you find different about this style of opera?
I’ve done Massenet, but I haven’t done a whole lot of Gounod. I’ve done a lot of scenes of Gounod, but this is my first full opera of Gounod. For me he presents endless possibility. He’s a fabulous dramatist. There was never once when I thought, “I have no idea what to do with this,” where in other instances with composers there are of course myriad ways to take it, but you feel like it’s a little more challenging to open doors. With Gounod, you listen to this music and the text – the libretto is beautiful – and you say, “Wow, okay. I can do this, we can do that.” And that’s why we’ve had such great rehearsals and this luxury of time to sit and say, “Let’s talk about Mephistopheles for a minute. And for hours and hours – what does he represent? And who is he in us?” He is us at our most cynical. It’s not even evil so much as it is cynicism – and it’s devastating because there’s no hope. It’s dark.
Speaking of dark, I’ve heard something about the space and what you have – or maybe haven’t – done with the space.
The theater is fantastic. It’s definitely a postindustrial-looking theater. It’s in the basement. It’s got the piping showing everywhere. When Andy, the set designer, and I went there for the first time, we sat there last summer and we said, “Okay, this is not a pretty space. Let’s not try to pretty it up.” This isn’t a pretty story. This is a tough story. So, we’re leaving the theater – it’s a fairly bare, minimalist set, post-industrial. For me, the set also represents moral degradation, and environmental degradation is part of that.
So the stained glass window in the church, for instance, has pieces missing now. We’ll see what it looks like, but bits and pieces of detritus. Like that, out there. [Here she points to an area of the Fenway around some railroad tracks.] This is environmental degradation. It’s small. It’s not what we’ve done to the planet, but it’s a small picture right there. The filth, the dirt, the old trash, the wood left over there, the cone that’s plastic and not used anymore. All these cars going by and spewing carbon into the air.
So how do you connect that moral degradation to the story?
I don’t think it’s a far jump for anybody to look at that and say, “This is degradation in so many ways.”
How then do you find that this story is relevant today?
All of us have Faust, we are all Mephistopheles. Hopefully we are Siebel, and we have Siebels in our lives. Sadly, many of us are Marguerite. Someone who’s naïve who made an uninformed choice. You can say she was seduced, but she has a free will. It’s an uninformed choice. Faust makes an informed bad choice. But we all have some of each of those characters. And all of us know someone who’s made a tragic mistake. And as you get older, you think wow, yeah. The remorse, and the chance that you had to make something better and you didn’t, which is what happens with Faust. He had a chance. He could have gone back sooner. And maybe Mephistopheles is pushing, pushing, pushing that we’re going to have these eight months – whatever it is, it’s unspecified – why he leaves. But you have to assume that he’s pursuing his sensual pleasure, which is why he made the agreement in the first place – in Gounod’s version. It’s about sensuality, virility, getting his youth back, having fun. A lot of this comes from myths that date back to the Renaissance. Originally, it was unlimited knowledge, knowledge of the universe. Being able to see the cosmos. That’s what the agreement was, for 24 years. It wasn’t so much having a great time. It was more unlimited knowledge and power. But Gounod focuses in on the sensual, the virility and youth he wants back – to pursue this gorgeous girl. There are so many tales though. The ones we know are Marlowe’s and Goethe’s.
Those are the ones that stand out, but there are so many of those tales, mostly emanating from Germany, but also Poland. It’s the Faustian bargain, selling your soul. Even today, in the news, we say it’s a Faustian bargain. It’s not so much they give up their souls, but they give up their moral principles for greed. You give it all up for greed. Faust, in this opera too, it is greed – it’s greed for youth. He wants youth again. So, it’s an ugly kind of greed, as much as monetary greed is, wealth.