Wallowing in Faust

15 Apr

Faust is one of my guilty pleasures.  It sums up 19th Century hokum – a piece with wit, charm and religiosity and the sort of attitude that it’s quite difficult to take seriously these days.  But it’s fun and there are glorious tunes and it feels as though it gets stronger as the evening goes on.  But it needs to be well done.

I saw the Royal Opera’s Faust at its first outing ten years ago and, while I like the piece and admired the McVicar production, the intervening casts didn’t strike me as ones that I would regret missing. This revival with the promise of Calleja, Netrebko, Terfel and Keenlyside, looked more promising. Netrebko, as everyone knows, cancelled at about 5 minutes notice, leaving the ROH desperately seeking Marguerite. They found two. Sonia Yoncheva, apparently, was excellent on the first night. Alexia Voulgaridou at the performance I saw on 14th April was pretty good, too.

McVicar’s production catches that hokum rather well. He sets it in a theatre with Faust as an ageing composer. The 19th century setting fits the attitudes perfectly and it enable Mephistopheles as a seedy theatre manager to provide a really nasty, grisly ballet. And the melodrama works in this setting also. I’m not sure that the pure Marguerite is really right for a barmaid in a seedy caberet but I can overlook that. Even after 10 years it’s a good-looking, lavish, successful version of the opera which serves as a setting for various different star turns. There’s no particular need to replace it for a while.

And we had a cast with the sort of confidence and star quality that you need to bring the piece off. Terfel makes a magnificent Mephisto – a lovely, insouciant performance, catching the threat and the charm and the cynicism of the character. He pointed the words wonderfully, understated the humour and sang magnificently. He caught the wit and threat of the ballet in his massive black ball gown.  Perhaps I’d like a slightly blacker quality to the voice – Tomlinson or Christoff – and there were odd imprecisions, as if he’d been singing a bit much Wagner, but this is the sort of star quality the role needs.

I also enjoyed Calleja’s performance. He’s not my favourite tenor – there’s a white, almost bleating quality to the voice at times that I don’t find attractive – but he can put out the top notes and do some really marvellous diminuendos. He makes a rather solider, more clumsy Faust than Alagna, having a lot of fun in the early acts and becoming really quite moving in the last.

Voulgaridou has sung Mimi here. She’s a new singer to me and I very much enjoyed her singing. There’s a nice purity to the voice and she manages the role’s challenges well. I’ve heard slighlty more sparkling jewel songs but she did the latter acts very strongly.

Keenlyside made a very reliable, believable Valentin. I found his first aria slightly disappointing but his death scene was outstandingly done and you can never fault his acting or commitment. Diana Montague gave a great cameo as Marthe.

Maurizio Benini conducted sensitively to his singers’ needs. Orchestra and chorus played well, but I can’t really believe that anyone was much challenged by his perfectly decent conducting. But then Faust isn’t a challenging opera and this wasn’t a challenging production. It was, however, hugely enjoyable and, when hokum is done this well, it’s easy to sit back and wallow.



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