It is not often that a production can be described as stronger on detail than over-arching concept, but that is the case with David McVicar’s 2004 version of Gounods Faust, revived here by Lee Blakeley.
Following its premiere in Paris in 1859, Faust may have been the opera of choice for decades, with Covent Garden including it in its programme every year until 1912. At nearly four hours, however, it is still on the long side for modern day audiences, who consequently require something more than just a straight telling of the story to hold their attention.
In his new production for English National Opera last year, Des McAnuff’s solution was to site Faust’s study beneath an A-bomb, hinting at the doctors destructive thirst for knowledge that is so prevalent in Christopher Marlowe’s original telling of the tale. McVicar, on the other hand, keeps the concept much closer to Gounod’s original, with Faust’s search being (in origin, at least) for youth, with Marguerite acting either as the catalyst or the bait.
Charles Edwards set consists of a dilapidated, half gilded theatre on one side of the stage, and the arches of a Gothic vaulted church on the other. The various scenes are then created by placing theatre curtains, Marguerites humble dwelling or prison-like bars between the two. The attention to detail is frequently staggering. When Valentin defies Méphistophélès by making a cross with two swords, the latter brandishes the hilt he broke from one of them to highlight the flimsiness of such a defence. At the end of Act III Méphistophélès is instrumental in helping Faust to join Marguerite by installing the stairs that enable him to climb to her. Then as Marguerite prays for salvation, Faust himself plays the organ in the church.
All too often, however, the staging seems to court confusion rather than clarity. The impressive acrobatics in Act II’s flag waving scene even seem to throw the chorus off-guard, while the following scenes dancing in Cabaret L’Enfer only adds further fuel to the flames of incoherence. In fairness, the male chorus perform particularly well in Gloire immortelle de nos aeux, and Act Vs ballet is especially potent, but all too often it feels as if the visual effects exist purely for their own sake, rather than to make any particular point about the opera.
Vittorio Grigolo is a Faust with everything. There are apparently no limits to his ability to produce the richest tenor sound, and the wider his throat opens the more focused it seems to become. At the start he goes a great distance (some might say too far) to sound like an old man singing, but as soon as he regains his youth he becomes a dashing hero who cannot wait to get on with things. As a result, he forms a strong partnership with René Pape’s Méphistophélès, Grigolo acting as the yapping, snapping terrier, Pape as the Alsatian happy to do things in his own time. Pape’s resonant bass is put to good use in the role as this Méphistophélès cuts an intrinsically rough, but outwardly spruced up, figure.
There is no disputing the purity of tone of Angela Gheorghiu’s Marguerite, and her performance leaves a strong impression. She comes across, however, as a stronger showman than actor, and frequently falls short of truly embodying the young, innocent Marguerite. This cannot be excused on the grounds that the performer is older than the part being played because age is not the decisive factor. In Carmen here last year Maija Kovalevska utterly convinced as the 15-year-old Micala, while in this very production Michèle Losier has no problem in making us believe in her portrayal of a man (Sibel). Nevertheless, Gheorghiu’s performance is still a stirring one, and interestingly she is at her most believable when portraying Marguerite’s final insanity, which helps to make the ending especially potent. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is also on wondrous form as Valentin, his performance of the relatively high O Sainte Medaille combining surety with tonal beauty.
In the pit, Evelino Pidò provides a well balanced account of the score that shows keen attention both to strict musical and overtly dramatic requirements. If the production is not entirely coherent, it still generates an exciting and frequently intense experience, and with such a strong cast in tow it comes with an unequivocal recommendation.
The Royal Opera House’s Faust will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday, 24 September, and relayed live into cinemas worldwide on Wednesday, 28 September. Malin Byström sings the role of Marguerite on 26 September, 7 and 10 October and Zheng Zhong Zhou plays Valentin on 7 and 10 October.