Royal Opera @ Covent Garden, London, 4, 7, 11, 15, 19, 21, 25, 28 October 2004
When David McVicar's production of Gounod's Faust was new in June of this year, the experience was hell in all but the literal sense. McVicar simply didn't take the work seriously enough, and clearly could not convince certain members of the cast - notably Bryn Terfel - that his wacky take on the 19th century's most performed opera was feasible.
With a new cast, a different director and a new conductor, however, things have seriously improved for this first revival.
The Royal Opera House has rarely been so empty on a first night before, probably due to the fact that the production was screened on BBC 2 in June, so that the whole country could see that it was not one of the Royal Opera's best. It also doesn't help that it's only four months since the work was seen here, and fans of French Opera have just been treated to a new production of Massenet's Werther, so why would anyone want to spend their money on seeing Faust again?
One extremely good reason is that in Piotr Beczala, the company has found a talented young tenor capable of surmounting the many vocal difficulties of the title role. Wonderful as Roberto Alagna was in the part in June, Beczala knocks spots off him in vocal characterisation and lyric beauty.
It also makes far more sense to have Faust played by a really young man in this production, because in the opening scene we see the aging and bearded Gounod imagining himself as Faust and making a pact with the Devil, played in this run of performances by the ingenious John Tomlinson - who is also bearded and aging. Whereas Alagna went from old age to middle age when he sold his soul to the devil, Beczala makes the journey back to youth. In the opera's final scene, we see Faust transformed back into the geriatric Gounod, who now knows that eternal youth is not necessarily an easy option.
It's all suddenly coherent, and although other aspects of the production remain really grating - such as the disgusting ballet scene depicting the torture of the pregnant Marguerite and the death of her child, complete with coffin (though they've removed the bit where they throw her around the stage) - I really have to hand it to the revival director for making everything work.
John Tomlinson performed the part with far more confidence than did Bryn Terfel in June. Although he very occasionally struggles in the upper register, he is extremely devilish, such as in the serenade aria. The prologue was far more convincing, with an electrifying performance by Beczala and Tomlinson of the 'pact duet'.
Maurizio Benini's conducting of the score was what really made the evening a treat. Every detail was fine-tuned, unlike Pappano's often uncontrolled reading in the last performances. He gives the music space to breath, and was sympathetic throughout to Elena Kelessidi's Marguerite, for example, which was deeply-felt but lacked tone and command; she was no match for Angela Gheorghiu in the original cast, unfortunately.
The chorus was in splendid form in every scene, especially the Soldiers' Chorus, and Charles Edwards' sets were grand, despite their frequent clash of styles.
It's worth seeing just for the tenor, but with Benini's conducting it's a near knock-out.