Faust – Charles Gounod
Sydney Opera House, February 10, 2020
When New York’s Metropolitan Opera opened its doors on October 22, 1883, the company performed Gounod’s Faust, chosen, it is quoted in The Nation a few days later, for its “ greater variety of vocal and orchestral effects than any one of the popular Italian opera (except “Aida” and “Mefistofele”)…while at the same time contain(ing) a sufficient number of arias to please those whose only desire is to hear the vocalists display their accomplishments.” Complementing Gounod’s unforgettable themes and orchestration, Faust is certainly an entertaining confluence of singing, ballet, theatre and literature with an overlay of religion and moral dilemnas.
Sir David McVicar’s brilliant production had its premiere at Covent Garden in 2004 and has seen five revivals there since. First seen in Sydney in 2015, the demand for tickets was so great that Opera Australia added an extra performance. the 2020 revival of this McVicar production is directed by Shane Placentino and stars Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Méphistophélès with Sicilian tenor Ivan Magri in the title role and Russian soprano Irina Lungu as Marguerite, completing a triumvirate of stellar soloists.
Wagner scathingly described Gounod’s Faust as “A feeble French travesty of a German literary monument” despite its considerable popularity following its premiere in Paris in 1859. Faust was one of the most successful operas of its time. The ‘German literary monument’ was the first part of Goethe’s dramatic poem of the same name, upon which is based the play Faust et Marguerite by Michel Carré, who along with Jules Barbier, wrote the libretto for Gounod’s masterpiece.
McVicar set his production in Paris during the decaying years of the late nineteenth century. Charles Edwards’ set design evokes the dichotomy between the celestial and the infernal with strong suggestions of redemption above and purgatory below. The recreation of the Cabaret L’Enfer a Satanically themed nightclub in Montmartre during La Belle Époque is darkly thrilling. The scenes move from Faust’s study to the town square, the interior of a cathedral, Marguerite’s home, the Harz mountains and a prison. Edwards’ ingenuity is a testament to the highly respected and complex art and craft of ‘real’ ( as opposed to ‘virtual’) set design. The set changes were seamless, visually irresistible and added greatly to the drama, enhanced by Paule Constable’s lighting design, realised by Catherine Alexander.
Costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel has created a resplendent wardrobe with Marguerite dressed like Édouard Manet’s barmaid at the Folies-Bergère, (1881-82), and Martha’s (Dominica Matthews) gown recalling the woman in Renoir’s 1874 painting La Loge (The Theatre Box).
Ivan Magri convincingly straddles youth and age with a fine balance of the lightness required for this Gallic repertoire and the sheer muscular stamina required for the role. Irina Lungu returns to Sydney after thrilling audiences with her portrayal of Corinna in Il viaggio a Reimsh in 2019. Her portrayal of the fragile ingenue who descends into madness was touching; her singing was rapturous, the haunting Il était un Roi de Thulé sung with gentle stoicism in contrast to the dazzling coloratura of the Jewel Song (Ah, je ris de me voir) which followed, as shimmering and luminous as the baubles with which she toyed.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes, completes the trio of principals as the menacing puppet-master, Méphistophélès, a powerful on-stage presence for much of the 3 hour epic. Rhodes plays malevolence to perfection. Much of the tension in the tale lies in the chemistry between the dependent Faust and the manipulative Méphistophélès. Rhodes and Magri are well-matched, drawing us relentlessly and convincingly into their complex and destructive dynamic.
Mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley continues to grow in voice and in her mastery of pants roles as Sièbel, giving truth to the statement in The Nation review as “among the best examples of what may be done by a great artist with an insignificant role.” Michael Honeyman as Valentin, Richard Alexander as Wagner and Domenica Matthews as the fussy Marthe round out a strong supporting cast.
If this production is anything to go by, the Opera Australia Chorus and the Opera Australia Orchestra, under conductor Lorenzo Passerini and concertmaster Jun Yin Ma, should be declared national treasures. There is ample symphonic material for the instrumentalists to shine and the orchestra excels with many solo moments, supporting the dancers as well as the singers. David McVicar’s direction of the chorus is brilliant; their sound, honed by chorus master Paul Fitzsimon is exceptional. Their ability to evoke grandeur, foreboding, trance-like hysteria and great sensitivity after the death of Valentin, underscored the drama. Their sounds from the gallery in the final act were transcendental.
Embedded in the fifth act is the diabolical Walpurgis Night ballet, not often performed in its entirety but which Sydney audiences were privileged to see. The ballet depicts another step in the relentless disintegration of Faust’s persona as Méphistophélès presents the poet with some of the most beautiful temptresses through history. Together, they watch the sylphs, clad in filmy white, who may well have stepped out of Chopin’s Les Sylphides, or Adam’s Giselle. The ballet deteriorates into an irreverent and grotesque stomp, the demure becoming delinquent, as Marguerite’s pregnant hell turns into tragedy.
This production of Faust is consummate entertainment elevated by strong performances and production values. See it!
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
Opera Australia presents Gounod’s Faust in the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House on selected evenings and afternoons until March 11, 2020.