Taken from Goethe’s retelling of the story of Doctor Faust, Boulanger’s opera focuses on the moment when Faust, persuaded by Méphistophélès to sign over his soul to eternal damnation in return for being shown one moment of true happiness, asks to see the beautiful Helen of Troy.
Faust’s sleep is troubled so Méphistophélès commands some spirits to watch over him, and change his dreams. He wakes up from dreaming of the beauty of Hélène. He demands that Hélène be brought across time, and across ages, that he might understand what true beauty is. Méphistophélès summons Hélène from beyond the grave. She is confused and frustrated that after all the troubles of her earthly life, she has been woken up again. She does not want to hear of Faust’s love, as she remembers back to her life and the many people who died in her name, and she cannot bear for this to happen again. Faust is insistent in his desire, and forces a kiss on Hélène. She is filled with a burning desire and suddenly becomes aware that she is alive again.
Their passion is fierce, but their union is short lived. Méphistophélès shows them that scores of Hellas fighters, ghostly figures covered in blood who lost their lives for Hélène, have come to take her back to the grave. Faust must let her go, or he will be taken down to hell with her. He is so enthralled by her beauty he cannot remove himself from her embrace, until the ghost of Paris comes forward from the crowd and claims her. Faust tries to fight the ghost, and is struck down by the flash of a sword.
Lili Boulanger’s sweeping Romantic score, dedicated to her sister and fellow composer Nadia Boulanger, reimagines Goethe’s gothic fantasy into a rich sound world. With just three voices, this short opera offers a generous glimpse into the genius of Boulanger’s compositional skill, and definitely deserves to be featured more frequently in the operatic canon.