The Devil Gets His Due

Classic Arts Features   The Devil Gets His Due
Paul Thomason takes us to Hell and back.

The world of opera is generously populated by an assortment of unsavory, even nasty and sometimes downright evil characters, some of whom employ magic and the supernatural in their quest of wreaking havoc on the unsuspecting. But even though opera as a genre does not flinch from exploring The Dark Side of life, there are remarkably few operas in which the Devil himself actually appears onstage. Two of them‹Gounod's Faust and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress‹return to the Metropolitan Opera's repertoire this spring, offering audiences the opportunity to ponder what would seem to be a conundrum: Why is it that the attainment of our heart's deepest desire is only possible by entering into a pact with the Devil which, inevitably, leads to our eternal damnation? Why does it seem that behind every delight and pleasure retribution lurks in one form or another?

Faust premiered in 1859 and quickly became so extraordinarily popular as to be almost ubiquitous, even inaugurating the old Metropolitan Opera House on October 22, 1883. For several decades audiences could not get enough of watching the aged philosopher Faust sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for a second chance at youth and the opportunity to experience the bliss of desire. (In Goethe's original, more profound telling of the story, Faust bargains not specifically for youth and young love but says, "If to the moment I should say: / Abide, you are so fair‹/ Put me in fetters on that day, / I wish to perish then, I swear." Perhaps Gounod's librettists felt their audience could more easily relate to the desire for a second chance of youth and romance than to the more amorphous quest for the single perfect moment.)

The opera might be called Faust, but the juiciest role is Méphistophélès who, summoned by Faust, makes his appearance to five fortissimo chords played by the entire orchestra. "I am here. Is that so surprising?" Méphistophélès asks the astonished Faust. "Does my appearance displease you?" And immediately the orchestra begins giving us clues about what kind of guy this particular Devil is. His first questions are all followed by four soft, quick notes from the flutes, bassoons and fourth horn, accompanied by two eighth notes by the strings. The music is playful, elegant, slightly mocking, the essence of a man very much in control of the situation and thoroughly enjoying it.

It is true that Faust takes the initiative by summoning Méphistophélès, and it is Faust who asks what the price will be for the Devil working his supernatural powers on the philosopher's behalf. He does not go blindly into the deal with Satan, he knows exactly what the price will be before he signs away his soul. He is fully aware of the consequences and even hesitates at the crucial moment‹Méphistophélès has to summon a vision of Marguerite to nudge, or entice, Faust into the final step. But once Méphistophélès steps on stage, he dominates the action and delights in it, while seducing us into enjoying his delight.

There are basses who have tried to make Gounod's Méphistophélès a caricature of loathsome evil, the vocal equivalent of the Bible's description of the Devil in I Peter 5:8 as being "like a roaring lion, [who] walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." But how many people would willingly hang around a roaring lion set on devouring them? Far more enticing is the Apostle Paul's version in II Corinthians: "Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light," which is much closer to Gounod's Devil. An "amalgam of debonair grace and cynical menace," is the way critic Paul Jackson summed up the role, and listening to recordings of great Méphistophélès like bass Pol Plançon (who sang the role 85 times at the Metropolitan between 1893 and 1908), one can understand why everyone is so taken in by the guy. A critic for The New York Times described Plançon's Méphistophélès as "a boulevardier," a man about town, the kind of guy Faust, actually, would like to be in his second youth, which is why he leans on the Devil for help, advice and instructions when it comes to wooing Marguerite.

This identification between the Devil and his victim is even more closely drawn in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, which premiered in 1951, almost a century after Gounod's Faust. In the twentieth-century opera there is no magic potion, no overt summoning of the Devil. Tom Rakewell merely says, "I wish I had money," and instantly a stranger appears and informs the young man he has been left a fortune by an uncle Rakewell never knew. Perhaps it is Rakewell's unthinking youth which blinds him to the true identity of this messenger, but Stravinsky's librettists, W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, give him the name "Nick Shadow," which leaves no doubt in the minds of the audience as to the man's identity: "Old Nick" being one of the Devil's many names, and "Shadow" being the dark side of every human being.

"Those unpleasant and immoral aspects of our selves which we would like to pretend do not exist or have no effect on our lives‹our inferiorities, our unacceptable impulses, our shameful actions and wishes‹this shadowy side of our personality is difficult and painful to admit," writes Rob Hopcke in A Guided Tour of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung.

"The shadow is, in truth, a devilish form," observes June Singer in Boundaries of the Soul, "and just when you think you know who he is, he changes his disguise and appears from another direction."

Tom Rakewell, who has no desire to work for a living and plans to rely on the favor of Fortune, only has to express a wish and his shadow, Nick Shadow, grants it. Every wish appears, as if by magic, just by the wishing itself. But none of the wishes last, and Tom ends up dying insane in Bedlam.

Perhaps one of the reasons our delights fade, and sometimes have unpleasant consequences, is to be found in the root of the word itself. "Delight" comes from the same root as "to snare" or "to bind," and is closely related to "a noose." Our delights can hang us, and we do it to ourselves by remaining unconscious of the roots of our desires, even if we blame it all on the Devil.

In the first scene of The Rake's Progress, Nick Shadow thanks Rakewell for taking him on as guide and says, "for masterless should I abide / Too long, I soon would die." What a concept‹that the Devil needs us or he dies? In the Epilogue, Shadow explains, "Day in, day out, poor Shadow / Must do as he is bidden."

Nick Shadow needs Tom Rakewell as much as Rakewell needs Shadow for the fulfillment of his wishes. Méphistophélès needs Faust as much as Faust needs him. What a paradox. Or is it?

"If I can stay with my conflicting impulses long enough, the two opposing forces will teach each other something and produce an insight that serves them both," notes Robert A. Johnson in Owning Your Own Shadow. "This is not compromise but a depth of understanding that puts my life in perspective and allows me to know with certainty what I should do. That certainty is one of the most precious qualities known to humankind."

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