February 7, 2014 6:41 pm

‘Faustian Pack’, Royal Opera House, London

Bryn Terfel as Mephistopheles in a 2004 production of Gounod’s ‘Faust’©Catherine Ashmore

Bryn Terfel as Mephistopheles in a 2004 production of Gounod’s ‘Faust’

A man takes a woman to the brink of emotional and psychological ruin. He seems witty, wise, true to life. He spins a seductive tale and manipulates her into doing what he wants. He ends up in prison and she in psychotherapy. But when she is asked whether, were a taxi to be made available, she would go to visit him, she says yes.

Another scenario involves a music teacher who dreams of brilliance. When a stranger offers him powerful technology to realise his dreams in sound, he immediately accepts – with horrific consequences.

Each is a tale of our time that encapsulates a truth about human nature – our susceptibility to the feeling that we are somehow “missing out”, making us fall for easy promises that result in entrapment. Each tale has been dramatised for the Royal Opera’s “Faustian Pack”, a mini-festival inspired by the Faust legend. The aim is to explore the myth in a way that makes it speak afresh.

Through His Teeth, by composer Luke Bedford and librettist David Harrower, dramatises the story of a woman seduced by a modern devil. The Crackle, about the relationship between creativity and moral responsibility, is the work of Matthew Herbert, electronic musician and philosopher of sound.

Both operas, to be premiered at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio Theatre in early April, represent a reimagining of Faust for the 21st century. They will run alongside a handsomely cast revival of Gounod’s 19th-century grand opera, Faust, in the main theatre. In an additional event, Man Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel will discuss what a pact with the devil means today and how we can recognise him when he visits us.

Ever since it was first published in German in 1587, the Faust myth has been elaborated and reworked countless times, most notably by Marlowe, Goethe, Bulgakov and Thomas Mann. The common thread is a bored individual who is lured by Mephistopheles into exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.

“Why is the legend so open to reinvention?” asks John Fulljames, associate director of opera for the Royal Opera, pointing out that more than 40 versions exist in opera alone. He says that behind Gounod’s “gothic, sentimental, perfumed and romantic” conception lies a story that is right up to date. “Is it about someone trying to go beyond finite knowledge to get infinite power? Is it about the moral vacuum of the modern city? Or is it something more emotional – whether love is possible in a world that is increasingly rational? Let’s unpick this myth.”

Bedford and Harrower were interested not so much in the legend itself as in the psychology of a relationship in which someone is deceived by a true-to-life devil-figure. While discussing what shape their story might take, they came across a “breathtakingly fantastical” news story about a man in the 1990s who had seduced at least 10 women and ended up controlling their lives to a horrific degree.

Composer Luke Bedford

Composer Luke Bedford

“The man claimed to be a spy so that he could come and go, and he fleeced them for money,” says Bedford. “So we thought, if there is to be a devilish character, this is it. There’s nothing supernatural about him – he’s something of a psychopath, with an insatiable desire to seduce and control people.”

The danger, Bedford and Harrower realised, was that they might end up “celebrating” their Mephisto. Instead, they tell the story of one of his victims, charting the relationship between seducer and seduced by means of flashback. The victim is being interviewed after the event: reflective passages suggest she has survived, while making clear that the experience has profoundly changed her.

Harrower, whose play Blackbird deals with related themes, says he was interested in the idea of large-scale deception in a modern context. “Why would someone indulge in such sadistic behaviour? What happiness should we allow ourselves, and how does that bleed into self-deception? Here are two people on independent trajectories who crash into each other. Both are adults who need something within themselves that leads to abjection. We wanted to explore how these fantasies, and the desire for a fantasy life, takes them into a dark place.”

Warming to his theme, Harrower cites the love life of French president François Hollande, who has split up with his partner Valérie Trierweiler after revelations about his alleged affair with an actress. “Where does self-deception lead us?” asks Harrower. “Can we evade our responsibilities? God, I sound really moral! But we all use tricks to lighten the pain of what we have brought upon ourselves.”

Through His Teeth is scored for an eight-piece ensemble, including a part for thundertube – a drum with a spring hanging through the middle, which makes an ominous ringing sound. Alongside the leading soprano and high baritone (“we didn’t want the traditional scary bass”), a third character doubles as the victim’s sister and interviewer. A psychodrama? “I suppose so,” says Bedford. “As a composer, what’s exciting is to play with tension. The first few scenes are light-hearted. You hold things back. Then suddenly it all bursts out.”

On the surface, Matthew Herbert’s The Crackle stays closer to tradition. It shows the central character trading his soul for new powers – the ability to replace human creativity with soulless technological inventions. Very Faustian.

Musician Matthew Herbert©Chris Friel

Musician Matthew Herbert

But look beneath the surface and it is clear Herbert wants his story to be interpreted within a wider philosophical framework, an element common to all his work. In The End of Silence, his restructuring of a sound-clip of a bomb dropping on Libya, Herbert sought to provoke questions about the spectator’s passive role in modern warfare. He sees the role of music and its technologies in The Crackle as a metaphor for ideas about progress.

“Music has been incredibly devalued,” he argues, quoting a statistic that claims 75 per cent of music on iTunes has never been downloaded. “Is it right to blindly invest so much in the idea of progress? We’ve developed these incredible technologies but we don’t have an accompanying philosophical framework to provide checks and balances about their use. There’s something incredibly narcissistic about doing something just because you can. It’s one of the joys of creation, but it can have profound practical consequences, and for me that’s the Faustian story.”

The Crackle gives Herbert the incentive to deploy a whole armoury of musical software in support of his electronic band, which will manipulate in real time the sounds made by the singers and two acoustic instruments. As part of his commission, he had to find a role for the Royal Opera House’s Youth Opera Chorus, a group of around 30 nine-to-13 year olds, who will play the teacher’s schoolchildren.

But the most novel element in The Crackle may be Herbert’s treatment of the devil. His presence is to be summoned by sound alone, for which Herbert will sample the voice of Bryn Terfel – the same singer as will be appearing as Mephistopheles on Covent Garden’s main stage in concurrent performances of Gounod’s Faust.

Terfel’s presence in two of the Faustian Pack operas represents a fortuitous link between old and new operatic styles. Fulljames believes such cross-fertilisation will refresh the Gounod, “if only because it reminds us that here was a composer who was once alive and thinking about ideas. Too often opera is seen as a canon that is made by dead people and subject to endless reinterpretation, rather than the creative choice of composer and librettist. What we want to show is that it’s strikingly contemporary.”

Faustian Pack, Royal Opera House, London, April 3-25. roh.org.uk

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