Many audience members in the Sottile Theatre may have felt like some character in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot when, at the end of the last performance of Pascal Dusapin’s ninety-minute opera Faustus, the Last Night, a character says “There is nothing.” Faust’s increasingly confused and disjointed questioning has been in vain since there are no answers. Dusapin’s score is immediately attractive and intriguing but the composer’s unusual and very non-linear take on the Faust myth was hard to grasp fully from one performance. (I will confess that watching the Naïve DVD of the Opéra de Lyon’s second run of the European premiere of the opera was only marginally helpful.)

Dusapin very deliberately did not want to use the most famous version of the myth, Goethe’s Faust, preferring very loosely to adapt the coarser 1604 Christopher Marlowe play, Doctor Faustus. Although the French composer’s opera premiered at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin and had its second run in Lyon, France, the text is in English. There are only five characters, and there is no love interest at all. Nearly the entire first half of the opera focuses on three main characters who often talk past or totally ignore each other. An Angel wanders around the stage singing such snatches as “You must be born again” in the highest soprano range. The effect was sometimes like chalk scraping on a board; the supertitles were often very helpful. Faust questions Mephistopheles with increasing incoherence. The devil often seems less informed than Faust and is often evasive. Dusapin’s non-linear, collage-like approach to story-telling adds layers of difficulty for listeners.

Dusapin adds two completely new characters to the myth. The drunken Sly, one of the composer’s favorite characters, from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, wanders in as a sort of “normal” Everyman. The final character, Togod, is an anagram of Beckett’s Godot and a reference to Blake’s poem “To God.” He has the opera’s nihilistic final words.

Music criticism is filled with reviewers who got it wrong. I found Dusapin’s instrumental score, as brilliantly led by conductor John Kennedy and played by members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, fascinating and often very beautiful. Meters changing every measure over long stretches must have been a challenge. Extra brass placed in the Sottille Theatre’s balcony added to the magical effect of the score.

Dusapin’s challenging libretto is too intellectual and fails to engage opera lovers’ hearts. Worse, it would be difficult to imagine any vocal sequence being lifted and treated as an “aria” for a vocal recital. Keeping track of its elements is like solving a Rubik’s cube.

There were no weaknesses in the vocal cast for Dusapin’s complex opera. Baritone John Hancock sang with firm control of his vocal line, and his diction was extraordinarily good. His role’s vocal line ranges from the normal lows to high falsetto. Bass-baritone Stephen West combined humor and sarcasm as the slippery Mephistopheles. Soprano Heather Buck was superb as the unworldly Angel, her intonation holding true in the stratospheric upper range. Tenor Adam Klein’s radiant voice was welcome as Sly, while bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, all blue from head to toe, thundered with gravitas as the magisterial Togod. The singers had to cope with bent notes, microtones, and multiple varieties of Sprechstimme, reminiscent of Berg or Schoenberg.

Stage Director David Herskovits’ Spoleto production made much more of Faustus’s connection to the older Faust myths than the opera’s European premiere stagings, which had drab characters struggling on a giant clock face, very Godot-like. Set Designer Carol Bailey and Costume Designer David Zinn created sets and costumes that would not have been amiss in a modern take on Gounod’s Faust. Most delightful was Mephistopheles’ costume: it looked like it had been based on the lurid all-red get-up worn by Jean de Reszke as the Devil, right down to the long twirling feather in his cap! Dusapin made some changes for this North American premiere run, including a large stylized set of Angel’s wings that are exploded. Faust’s stylized study was suspended above the stage and surrounded by space filled with stars. Leonore Doxsee’s lighting designs were complex and effective.

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