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14 Apr 2019

McVicar's Faust returns to the ROH

To lose one Marguerite may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But, with the ROH Gounod’s Faust seemingly heading for ruin, salvation came in the form of an eleventh-hour arrival of a redeeming ‘angel’.

Gounod: Faust: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Faust at the ROH

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton


The pre-curtain announcement was not auspicious. With Diana Damrau having already withdrawn from the production, suffering from a slipped disc, her replacement Irina Lungu was now afflicted with a throat infection and fever. One can imagine the frantic telephone calls and taxi rides that ensued, as German soprano Mandy Fredrich was diverted from her planned journey to Bonn - where she was scheduled to perform in Theater Bonn’s Elektra - to London City airport, where her plane touched down just a couple of hours before curtain-up. With no time for rehearsal, Fredrich was going to have to rely on the guidance offered during the ensuing dash to Bow Street by the creative team who met her plane, and her own experience of singing the role in Stuttgart and at the Wiener Staatsoper.

We should not have worried. Fredrich negotiated the role with a calm assurance, even though David McVicar’s 2004 production - now widely travelled and here being revived for the fifth time (see 2014 review ) - throws up plenty of surprises, not least the fact that this Marguerite, having been entrusted to the care of the young, adoring Siébel by her brother Valentin, on the latter’s departure for war, finds herself working as a hostess in the Cabaret L’Enfer. One might be tempted to ask what a nice girl like this is doing in a place like that, as Mephistophélès’ acolytes scuttle about like crabs, turning sudden somersaults, during the rambunctious revelries and burlesque excess.

For McVicar, updating the action to Second Empire Paris and the Franco-Prussian war, relishes the almost schizophrenic quality of Gounod’s sumptuous opera - which cannot seem to decide if it wants to be grand opera or opera comique, as extravagant ballet collides with demi-caractère roles such as Marthe and Mehistophélès (the original production at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1859 employed spoken dialogue).

McVicar draws on the dual aspirations of its composer who found himself torn between the theatre and the church, and Charles Edwards’ designs spell out the schism boldly. Stage right we have a replica of a luxurious box from the Paris Opéra; stage left the organ loft of Notre Dame. There’s a prevailing Gothic mien but the palette switches back and forth from eerie black and grey to camp crimson and gold, as McVicar whisks us from cathedral to cabaret club, from sanctimonious ritual to saturnalian riot.

Michael Fabiano as Faust.jpgMichael Fabiano as Faust. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

And, it works a treat in an opera in which the protagonist has been stripped of the noble ambition bestowed on him by Goethe to ‘behold the warp and the woof of the world’s inmost fabric’, albeit by questionable means, and is obsessed not with the search for knowledge, experience and truth but solely with desire to satisfying his lustful cravings. McVicar seems to evoke the illusions which give both theatre and church their power when he has his master magician, Mephistophélès, transform the aging Faust into a debonair youth in front of a scuffed mirror in a backstage dressing-room, and tap wine from Christ’s stigmata.

In the title role, Michael Fabiano did not really convince as the decrepit scholar in Act 1, but the young seducer’s evening dress fitted him perfectly, and he conveyed the complexity of Faust’s character, his voice switching from tenorial sweetness to an almost baritonal darkness with mercurial ease, just as a natty twirl of his red cane belied his surprisingly timid courting of Marguerite. Fabiano held something in reserve in the first two Acts, but his Act 3 cavatina, ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’, sailed strongly and was beautifully phrased - although the extended use of the head voice at the close was surely not idiomatic, the top C disappearing into the ether rather than floating strong and true.

Fabiano’s Faust and Erwin Schrott’s Mephistophélès were a convincing duo, equally debonair and dastardly. Looking more like Don Giovanni than the Devil, Schrott stylishly donned his colourful personae - from matador to master-of-ceremonies, from elegant man-about-town to tiara-wearing transvestite - his plump, smooth bass-baritone oozing supreme nonchalance. He sailed down to the lower reaches with the ease that Mephistophélès slides through a trapdoor back to Hadean realms at the close. And, the fiend’s menace was not born of cartoonish ‘evil’ or vocal ominousness but in his very seductiveness. This Mephistophélès communed so companionably among the folk that the stark flashes of the demonic took one by surprise. No wonder that his disdainful dismissal of Valentin’s Crucifix-aping crossed swords - they made a perfect mirror for the self-admiring Satan - resulted in the collapse of the statue of Christ. Schrott’s cool indifference and cackling delight were equally chilling.

Erwin Schrott as Méphistophélès.jpgErwin Schrott as Méphistophélès. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Fredrich betrayed no hint of nerves, warming up with a pure and gentle ‘Il était un Roi de Thulé’ - sung not in her garden but beneath the garret where she would be seduced - and following it with a confident, sparkling Jewel Song. Her soprano is not the largest, but it is true and tidy. Fredrich did far more than just ‘save the show’. Had no announcement been made, few would have realised that she was literally learning the production on the hoof.

Stéphane Degout was a valiant Valentin. ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ was ardent and beautifully phrased, and the audience showed their appreciation at curtain call. British-Spanish mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons (replacing the originally announced Varduhi Abrahamyan) captured Siébel’s adolescent gaucheness and frustration, her soprano offering a welcome freshness amid the dark goings-on. Carole Wilson’s Marthe was a lusty absinth-drinking partner for Mephistophélès and Jette Parker Young Artist Germán E. Alcántara was strong as Wagner.

Conductor Dan Ettinger found the dark inkiness of the score - the clarinets and bassoons of the ROH Orchestra excelled - but retained a winning transparency, balancing dynamism with delicacy. The Chorus were on terrific form.

Gounod’s Faust was the most commonly performed repertory opera in Paris from its premiere in 1859 into the early twentieth century, seen 306 times at the Theatre-Lyrique from 1859 to 1868, and 500 times at the Paris Opera between 1869 and 1887. Just 75 years after its premiere, it notched up its 2000th outing in Paris. But, it is ‘of its time’: part Christian melodrama, part dance-hall extravaganza, reflecting the dichotomies of its age and its bourgeois audience. McVicar’s achievement is to both accept and relish this.

Indeed, as Mephistophélès watched the Walpurgisnacht ballet descend from a parody of Delibes’ Giselle into a bacchanalian orgy of rape and ruin - his diamante glinting, his fan fluttering ever-more frantically as the degradation increased and the bodies of dead Franco-Prussian soldiers piled up - it seemed as if it was not so much the fantasies of the now opium-addicted Faust that had come to life, but his darkest nightmares. Given that the illustrations which the Irish stained-glass artist and book illustrator, Harry Clarke, supplied for a 1926 edition of Goethe’s Faust are said to have inspired the psychedelic imagery of the 1960s, perhaps one day a director might dare to stage a truly mind-blowing, mood-bending Faust? In the meantime, McVicar’s production is a fantastical and full-filling box of delights.

Claire Seymour

Gounod: Faust

Faust - Michael Fabiano, Méphistophélès - Erwin Schrott, Marguerite - Mandy Fredrich, Valentin - Stéphane Degout, Siébel - Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Marthe Schwertlein - Carole Wilson, Wagner - Germán E. Alcántara; Director - David McVicar, Conductor - Dan Ettinger, Set designs - Charles Edwards, Costume designs - Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Lighting design - Paule Constable, Choreography - Michael Keegan-Dolan, Revival Director - Bruno Ravella, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Thursday 11th April 2019.

Claire Seymour

Gounod: Faust

Faust - Michael Fabiano, Méphistophélès - Erwin Schrott, Marguerite - Mandy Fredrich, Valentin - Stéphane Degout, Siébel - Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Marthe Schwertlein - Carole Wilson, Wagner - Germán E. Alcántara; Director - David McVicar, Conductor - Dan Ettinger, Set designs - Charles Edwards, Costume designs - Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Lighting design - Paule Constable, Choreography - Michael Keegan-Dolan, Revival Director - Bruno Ravella, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Thursday 11th April 2019.

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