Throughout the course of opera’s explosive growth as a populist art form in the 19th century, few staples of Western literature have inspired more composers than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s revered two volume epic drama, Faust. Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, all quoted the play in dramatic symphonic form. Beethoven and Schubert wrote more intimate, poetic settings for Goethe’s tremulous text. Seasoned opera specialists, among them Berlioz, Boito, Busoni, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and more recently John Adams, have each crafted their own unique versions of the legend. None, however harrowing the libretti or compelling the scores, has ever equalled the popularity of Charles Gounod’s acutely theatrical, supremely principled five act opera first staged in 1859 to ironically guarded initial acclaim.
Unveiling its own vibrant take on Gounod’s musical morality play earlier this week, Toronto’s Loose Tea Music Theatre added its own name to the creative role call with a dark, moody sketch of the composer’s rambling work. Trimmed to a crisp 90-minutes, stripped of any hint of the original’s often claustrophobic religiosity, Artistic Director Alaina Viau’s stark contemporary précis, rebranded as Dissociative Me, struck a powerful chord. Faust has rarely seemed darker and arguably never more psychotic.
Working in collaboration with fellow Faust enthusiast, General Manager Markus Kopp, Viau has fashioned a twisted, sinister Hitchcockian thriller from what by comparison seems a quaint, albeit musically glorious relic from the Romantic Age.
John Faustus, PhD, newly graduated in Astrophysics, is on the knife edge of mental collapse. A victim of acute Dissociative Identity Disorder, repeatedly sidelined in a hyper-competitive job market, displaced and alienated, he is a heartbeat from overdosing on a fistful of pills. Suddenly, his ominous, ever-present inner demon, Lee, steps from the shadows of Faustus’ consciousness and offers his host a deal. If John will surrender to his control, Lee will do all in his power to make him master of his future. Success, wealth, love, all shall be his. John willingly agrees.
En route to meet Margarita, a.k.a. Maggie, the young woman Lee has selected to satisfy John’s dreams, Faustus and partner accidentally encounter her over-protective brother, Stephen, out drinking with his friends. Lee needles Stephen with a bout of lewd remarks targeting Maggie’s virginity. Stephen explodes. Lee and John make a quick exit, arriving at the local coffee shop where Maggie works. She and John engage in a fleeting moment of innocent flirtation, each as lonely and guileless as the other. Later, after stalking her back to her house, Faustus is persuaded to leave a lavish token of his infatuation on her doorstep. Maggie, naive and starved for affection discovers the anonymous gift, an offering of outrageously flashy jewellery. John watches excitedly from hiding, encouraged by the pretty young woman’s giddy reaction as she tries on a few of the pieces. Goaded into action by Lee, Faustus makes his move. Maggie succumbs, swept away by a flood of long repressed desire.
Time passes. Maggie has given birth to John’s child, the product of their rapturous night of passion. Stephen returns home, his pockets stuffed with cash from the Alberta oil sands to discover that Faustus, increasingly more and more self-obsessed, has abandoned his precious sister. Lee engineers a run-in and when Stephen hurls himself in John’s path, Faustus’ malicious companion stabs Maggie’s brother to death on the street. Overcome by guilt and horror, Maggie dissolves into madness. Withdrawing Lee’s blade from her brother’s body, she kills her baby and is about to end her own life when a local police officer bursts onto the scene. Lee and John flee.
Months later, out clubbing with Lee in a seedy bar, John is struck by a piercing pang of remorse when he happens to catch a breaking news report on a nearby video screen. Maggie, jailed and held in solitary since that terrible night, has been convicted of double murder. Faustus vows to set her free. His remorse comes to late. During a bungled prison break, Maggie, mentally and physically ravaged by grief, somehow manages to snatch Lee’s knife. This time her death is assured. She dies. John sinks to his knees. So much pain. So much suffering. With a single fatal blow, Faustus plunges Lee’s ubiquitous weapon into his own chest. Lee gasps and collapses, too.
The psychic tension builds with every spurt of blood in this production. The concept of the devil incarnate is, as Jungian psychology might suggest, a classic archetype that plays to our need to externalize evil. By putting a human face on acts of otherwise incomprehensible brutality, we achieve a measure of perspective. Inhumanity is contained. Loose Tea’s disturbing vision of Mephistopheles residing within Gounod’s tortured hero gives us no such comfort, however subverted. Faust/Faustus is simultaneously sensitive and callous, victim and criminal. Even Maggie, the sweet young woman behind the coffee shop counter, given the right combination of desperation and chronic distress, is capable of unthinkable savagery. It is a ferociously clever creative approach, one that lends itself to intense, resonant dramatization. Dissociative Me crackles with combustible energy. The resulting flare-ups are as explosive as they are inevitable.
Volatile as it may be, this unrestrained 21st century chamber adaptation, staged with startling intimacy in Liberty Village hotspot RED Night Club, is not without flaws. More theatre with music than musical theatre, director/librettist Viau bravely interjects improvised spoken dialogue into the stream of Gounod’s repurposed sung recits with bold abandon. The effect, when it succeeds, is engaging but clearly not all the cast is equally adept as actors. The flow of repartee in numerous casual ensemble vignettes quickly disintegrates into clumsy, affected small talk, admittedly a minor issue, but glaring nevertheless.
Gounod’s celebrated Act V horror scene, the swirling Walpurgis Night celebration populated by demons and ghouls, when incorporated into Dissociative Me, becomes a visit to a sleazy hangout for transvestite hookers. Characterizations are unacceptably shallow, empty caricatures bordering on mockery. The scene is ill-conceived and unforgivably gratuitous.
Sporadic gaffes and shortcomings aside, the evening, occasionally subject to a less than smooth flow of narrative, is by and large a rousing success. The stunning originality of Viau’s vision and a fully engaged, irrepressible cast grip the imagination.
Bass-baritone Michael York is a diabolical Lee. Plainly revelling in his satanic persona, York’s delectable, smoky instrument drips with delicious malevolence, poised, commanding and irresistible.
Singing the part of Faustus, tenor Kijong Wi delivers a gritty, impassioned performance despite an obvious bout of unspecified vocal distress on opening night. His commitment to the dramatic integrity of his character was unflinching nevertheless.
As Dissociative Me’s resident soubrette, soprano Beth Hagerman essentially steals the show. Wide-eyed and wholesome on first impression, the recent Glenn Gould School fellowship winner fearlessly mines the dark, subterranean depths of her role extracting a troubled portrait of goodness bathed in corruption. Hagerman’s lovely rendition of Gounod’s exquisite showstopper, the Jewel Song, Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle (“Oh, it makes me laugh to see myself so beautiful”) credibly rephrased here to They look as if they’re made for me! is simply gorgeous, lovingly tinted with coloratura.
Baritone Johnathon Kirby voices a strong, muscular Stephen. His involvement as moral avenger in the action and rich musical fabric of the piece is intense. Kirby never falters.
Tenors Jonathan Sandberg and Fabian Arciniegas appear as Stephen’s friends, Wagner and Mike. Interestingly, Viau elects to present the latter as a male comprimario rather than attempt to replicate the corresponding Gounod character, the lovesick youth, Siebel, habitually sung by a mezzo-soprano as a trouser role. The update works well.
Pianist Jennifer Tung superbly partners the cast from a handsome Steinway, playing with fluid athleticism and understanding. Gounod’s music for Faust, severely edited but still robustly celebrated in Dissociative Me, resounds with brilliant melodies, virtually every scene sparkling with lyricism. All the hallmarks of French grand opera are here, sensual form, bel canto showmanship, evocative textures. Tung expresses them all with great sensitivity. Her rendition of Gounod’s exquisite Act II Entr’acte is particularly affecting, glowing and intricately filigreed.
Modest in commercial stature, Loose Tea Music Theatre casts a disproportionately long artistic shadow. Anarchic, irreverent, Dissociative Me is a prime example of what makes this compact company well worth watching. This is high stakes opera built on a gamble. Viau and company have taken a huge risk renovating a formidable work with Faust’s sprawling dimensions. And yet, against enormous odds, they have prevailed. Dissociative Me is a winner.