The Power of Art

Last week Popie and I went to see Faust at the San Francisco Opera. I wasn’t taken by the music, but the production was wonderful. I appreciated that they played it straight, not remaking Faust as a wisecracking gay follies. The opera really is about temptation, and its evil really is evil. The devil it portrays is a very charismatic person—the most attractive character in the play, really—but that’s true enough in real life. If you take Faust seriously it gives you lots to think about.

I was struck by how fundamentally and straightforwardly the opera offered Christian beliefs about good and evil. The basic story line tells of an old man, Faust, deeply frustrated by his life, who makes a bargain with the devil: he will become young again, and find love, in exchange for a promise to serve Satan after his death. With the devil’s help he seduces a lovely young girl. He is conscience stricken when he meets her, and almost pulls back, but the devil urges him on. As the opera progresses, we see that the devil has not only bargained for Faust’s soul in the afterlife, he is determined to corrupt his soul (and the girl’s) in this life too. There are no simple bargains with Satan. He doesn’t really give; he takes.

Marguerite, the girl Faust seduces, is no more virtuous than Faust. She is seduced by her own vanity. (The devil helps Faust know how to get to her.) Pregnant, abandoned, mocked by her community, she kills her own baby and is condemned to death. The devil and a still-in-love Faust offer her a chance to escape the prison, but she appeals to God. Her ascent of the scaffold is accompanied by the devil’s declaration that she is condemned, and angel choruses singing of salvation. She is evidently ascending to God while Faust is going straight to hell.

Okay, it’s melodramatic. But it’s been very popular, and in Gounod’s version, it’s strikingly true to Christian belief. That wasn’t because everybody in those times believed. Faust opened in Paris in 1859, just two years after Madame Bovary. A few years later the Impressionists mounted their challenge to classic painting; their world was full of experiments in unorthodox thinking and living. Yet Faust’s composer, Charles Gounod, was a devout Christian (according to Wikipedia). Through the popular spectacle of this opera, orthodox (and imaginative) Christian content was widely displayed. I don’t know how many in his first audience really believed—perhaps no more than believed in San Francisco last week. But clearly, the times allowed Gounod to present his beliefs straightforwardly. Would the same be true today? I’m tempted to say no, but then, the San Francisco Opera just presented a very straightforward version of the same opera that wowed them in 1859.

It’s hard to argue with art. One great writer—or even one capable composer, like Gounod—can speak into places and times that would never otherwise hear.

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