In the 19th century, Gounod’s Faust was by far the top of the operatic pops. Premiered in Paris in 1859, Covent Garden saw Faust every year up to 1912, and by the late 1930s it had notched up nearly 400 performances. After the war, however, there was only one Royal Opera production, which has not been seen since 1986.
The story needs little introduction. The tale of the man who sells his soul to the devil in return for eternal youth has been a cornerstone of European culture since the early nineteenth century, not only in Goethe’s version but in various musical forms by Berlioz, Boito and Liszt amongst others. However, it would be a lie to say that Gounod’s opera was designed as anything other than a vehicle for the stars of its day. All the big names have sung it – Kiri Te Kanawa and Alfredo Kraus were the last to take the lead roles on the Covent Garden stage – and in David McVicar’s big-budget new production, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Bryn Terfel and Simon Keenlyside followed in the footsteps of their operatic ancestors in taking the four main roles in this operatic warhorse.
The production was meant to be the highlight of the season: it sold out on the first day of booking, and people were queuing at 4am to get the 67 seats available on the day. It will be on BBC2 on Saturday 19 June, and is being simultaneously broadcast on the big screen in the Covent Garden piazza. The production is expensive, the casting starry – what could go wrong?
Many things, I am sad to report. First of all, there is the opera itself. It’s overlong, at times uninspired, and very old-fashioned. After the recent sophistication of Lady Macbeth and Arabella on this stage, it felt like a move into the operatic second (or even third) division.
McVicar’s production is very confused. On the one hand, it was quite inventive to portray the action of the opera as being in Gounod’s imagination. In the opening scene, Faust is dressed as the aged composer who dreams of youth, and over the course of the opera he realises what could happen if his dreams became reality, so that in the final scene he is returned to his former self, a wiser man. On the other hand, the production was riddled with cheap tricks which did the singers no favours and which, I believe, were the cause of their occasional vocal difficulties.
The most excruciating aspects are those which look like a miscalculated homage to Broadway musicals. Rocky Horror was there; Cabaret and Fosse were referred to in the final scene of Act 2; and, most vomit-inducing of all, the town scenes with Marguerite’s brother and his friends go the whole hog in evoking One Day More and Do You Hear the People Sing from Les Miserables, complete with flag-waving. These seem to add nothing to the work as it stands and are completely distracting and incoherent.
In the opening scene, Roberto Alagna as Faust is required to do a cartwheel over the stage. It provoked a laugh from the audience but ruined his voice for the rest of the scene. Alagna’s singing was mixed throughout the evening – sometimes sublime (especially in the love duet with his real-life wife, Angela Gheorghiu) and sometimes lacking enough bite for the more hellish scenes. He was, however, an excellent romantic lead.
Gheorghiu as Marguerite, Faust’s lover, is made to look stupid on several occasions throughout the evening. For example, when her brother Valentin has just been killed, Gheorghiu is required to suddenly laugh, presumably to show she has gone mad. She seems uncomfortable with this, however, and the atmosphere of the scene was diminished. French is not Gheorghiu’s best language nor Marguerite her best role, but she carried off the weirdness of the production remarkably well, and after an understated Jewel Song she sang superbly well.
Most disappointing of the evening was Bryn Terfel as Mephistopheles. One would think Bryn perfectly cast in this role, but he seems unconvinced by McVicar’s production. He lacks seductiveness, both physically and vocally, but one had to feel sorry that so great a singer was required to cast off the most effective of his costumes (a black cloak) mid-scene to reveal a Hello Dolly-type evening gown underneath.
Simon Keenlyside gave the most serious and even performance of the evening as Valentin, but he was given a less controversial job by the director. His warm baritone suited every aspect of his music, and was the biggest treat of the evening.
In the pit, Antonio Pappano made some peculiar tempo fluctuations, but the orchestra played well. Best of all, however, was the Royal Opera Chorus in the best form they’ve been in all season. Their Chorus Director, Terry Edwards, took a well-deserved bow with the principals at the end; his retirement in the summer will be a loss to the company.
In all, a disappointing evening. I can’t see it adapting well to the small screen, but I’m willing to be proved wrong.