Thursday, April 11, 2013

Retrieving the Soprano from Gounod's Faust

Waking hours before dawn, I thought I had let my dreams slip, but lingered in bed to see if they would come after me. Yes. I see a small pocket-sized book, with a light green paper cover, from an earlier time. There is a one word title, Faust.
    Slipping back inside the dream, I open the book, curious to see which version of the best-known devil story in Western literature this may be. Goethe? Christopher Marlowe?
    Neither. I am looking at the libretto of an opera. This is Gounod's Faust, a grand five-act opera. Some parts of the libretto have been tagged in pencil, very lightly. These are lines sung by Siebel, the young soldier who is Faust's rival for the beautiful Marguerite, a man of honor and devotion.
    I am seized with excitement. My mother's aunt, Violet Concanen, known in the family as "Aunty Dick" performed as Siebel - traditionally played by a female soprano - with the great Dame Nellie Melba as Marguerite, in Gounod's Faust at the Melbourne Opera House. I have an photo of Aunty Dick in that role.
   I come back from the dream space and look for the photo. It's in a little album my mother gave me, with many pictures of Aunty Dick, who my mother adored. Here she is as a dreamy teen, and all dressed up as a young Edwardian lady, and in a kimono for her part in the Mikado. And here she is in cloak and medieval garb, dressed to fight the devil.
   I don't think I have the little green book of the libretto, though in my personal forest of books one can never be quite sure. But it takes almost no time to find a bunch on online versions, and videos of Siebel's famous aria in the third act, "Faites-lui mes aveux," including a wonderful performance by Sophie Koch at Covent Garden here.
    Siebel gathers a bouquet of flowers for Marguerite. Mephistopheles makes the flowers wither.

I cannot touch a flower without it fading.

But Siebel uses white magic against the dark. When he refreshes the flowers with the holy water that Marguerite uses in her daily devotions, they come back to life, and he sings, "I laugh at you, Satan."
    The devil has more tricks. Mephistopheles has captured the soul of the aged, decrepit philosopher Faust, who was so depressed by his failure to find wisdom that he decided to kill himself. In Gounod's version, based on a play by Michel CarrĂ© called Faust and Marguerite, Faust curses the joy of peasants he hears laughing and cries out to the powers of hell, who promptly respond. Mephistopheles appears in a puff of smoke and seduces Faust with promise of knowledge, youth, and sensual delights, at the price of his soul. Captivated by a vision of the beautiful Marguerite, Faust shows what all his studies have been worth by making the deal, and we have been talking about Faustian bargains ever since.
    Faust shows up at Marguerite's house, sings a magnificent aria, and presents himself in the guise of a dashing and mysterious young suitor. Though intrigued, Marguerite doesn't yield to his advances, and Siebel, with his bouquet, may still have a chance - until Mephistopheles trumps the flowers by magicking up a box of jewels and a remarkable  mirror. 
"How beautiful my reflection is," sings Marguerite, looking in that mirror. "I am the princess greeting her subjects as she passes by." 
    I turn back to the album. I read that Aunty Dick was so popular as Siebel that she got more curtain calls than Melba at the premiere at the Melbourne Opera House, which must have strained relations with the diva. Here she is again, lovely as Dorothy in the opera of the same name. Here is the program for a state dinner in Perth where she sang for the Prince of Wales. They served peach Melba - named for Nellie - and cheese straws for dessert. The Prince of Wales asked her to dance, and she found him "drunk as a lord".
    I met her only once, in the world, when I was very young, and my mother took me across the vast continent by train from Melbourne, where I was born, to meet her family in Western Australia. Aunty Dick, who was also a singing teacher, urged me to "breathe from the diaphragm."
    She left this world long ago, but I have seen her in dreams, and once found her very happily engaged in making music and giving singing lessons at a school in another world. I suspect she is quite capable of arranging a book delivery.

My Aunty Dick (Violet Concanen) as Siebel in Gounod's Faust

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