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2004, ROH London, Faust

Faust

Simon Keenlyside is there as Marguerite’s doomed brother Valentin, dignifying everything he touches” The Times

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Composer: Charles-Francois Gounod
Librettist: Jules Barbire and Michel Carre after Carre’s “Faust et Marguerite” and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust”, Part 1.
Venue and Dates:

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
11, 15, 19, 23, 27 June, 2 July  2004

Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: David McVicar
Sets: Charles Edwards
Costumes: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting: Paule Constable
Choreography: Michael Keegan-Dolan
Performers:

Faust : Roberto Alagna
Mephistopheles : Bryn Terfel
Marguerite : Angela Gheorghiu
Wagner : Matthew Rose
Valentin : Simon Keenlyside
Siebel : Sophie Koch
Marthe Schwertlein : Della Jones
The Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director, Terry Edwards) and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Associate Concert Master, Sergey Levitin)

Notes: Co-production with Opera de Monte Carlo, Opera de Lille and Fondazione Teatro Linrico Giuseppe Verdi Trieste.
The performance on 19 June was broadcast on TV and Radio, and will be relased as a DVD in the UK on 13 September 2010. Click the DVD cover for details…

Gounod Faust DVD

Photo Gallery

Soundbites

Click here to see what Jane Garratt thought of Faust

Anthony Holden, Sunday June 20, 2004 The Observer

A devil of an evening

Satan is stalking the nation’s opera houses, from Covent Garden to Garsington. Do not, if you want to get the girl, sell that man your soul. And beware of letting him sucker you into a bet, especially if he turns up as Mozart’s Don Alfonso.

The devil can come in many guises – not least as Bryn Terfel in drag at the Royal Opera. But Faust started out as an oldster who traded a second crack at life for an eternity in hell – an archetype as potent as Don Giovanni. The rot set in when Marlowe fixed him up with Helen of Troy; the two myths seemed to merge to the point where, by the time of Gounod, Faust had degenerated into a dirty old man ready to brave centuries of sulphur for one last grope at some nymphet.

It’s time Faust was restored to his due, self- destructive dignity; but you won’t find that happening at Covent Garden, where this once sobering morality tale has been reduced to a West End extravaganza. Terfel’s drag queen is but one of Mephistopheles’s many incarnations in David McVicar’s reinvention of Gounod’s Faust as a lavish, star-studded night out for the well-heeled masses. With Roberto Alagna in the title role, Angela Gheorghiu as Marguerite and Antonio Pappano in the pit, not to mention Terfel, this was billed as one of the operatic events of the year. So why does it feel like plenty of nothing?

McVicar’s Grand Guignol routine, also on display in his ROH Magic Flute, may have become overfamiliar; but it would also seem to be tailor-made for this of all operas. His ‘Cabaret l’Enfer’ and Walpurgisnacht orgy are vividly over-the-top set-pieces, teeming with even more preening grotesques and homoerotic shenanigans than most McVicar productions. Even the grandiose Gothic cathedral (last seen in his ENO Tosca), complete with Dracula-style organ loft, is faithful to the work – as is the conceit of playing the elderly Faust as Gounod himself, torn between the operatic stage and the church.

But this entertaining Hammer horror approach – with Terfel’s tongue forever in cheek as he pops up and down through trapdoors, metamorphosing from circus ringmaster to black-tied maître d’ – is constantly bouleversed by Simon Keenlyside’s Valentin reminding us that there’s a (Franco-Prussian) war going on. From Alagna’s cart-wheeling burlesque via Gheorghiu’s girlish delight in her surprise delivery from Cartier to the piles of French dead, amid all that rape and pillaging, it’s just too confusing a call between laughter and tears.

Gounod’s Faust doesn’t have to be played primarily for laughs; it can swing either way, but you can’t have it both. Musically, this dream team fulfils expectations, despite Alagna’s vain (in both senses of the word) attempts to steal the show. But my guess is that it will lose much of its lustre when this A-team, taking time out from its busy schedules for just six performances, is succeeded by a C-team (with the notable exception of John Tomlinson) in the autumn.

Richard Fairman, Financial Times, 14 June, 2004

It is often remarked that Goethe would not have recognised his Faust from the opera Gounod made out of it. If he gets good satellite reception wherever he is now and is thinking of tuning in to the live BBC2 television relay of this production, he should be warned – there are one or two extra horrors in store.

It is 30 years since the last production of Faust at the Royal Opera House and clearly time for a new one. That pastel-paint tableau of Marguerite floating up to heaven on a little chariot of clouds really would not do in 2004.

Some imaginative productions have been seen in the UK since then, including one that gave the opera the Atkins diet treatment by going back to the slim and trim original version with spoken dialogue and another from eastern Europe that turned it into a brilliant piece of theatre set in a circus with Méphistophélès as the ringmaster.

Nothing so forward-looking happens here. The Royal Opera has set its sights on a grand night out at the opera – the sort that kept Fausttop of the bill for so many decades, featuring a big-house production, the traditional sung recitatives, the ballet added in 1869 and a minor constellation of star singers.

With so many big egos on board somebody had to keep the ship on an even keel and the Royal Opera’s music director, Antonio Pappano, is probably the only person who could bring this cast safely to port.

Where other conductors tend to get bogged down in the French repertoire, he was in his element, making Gounod’s music sparkle with effervescence, supported at every point by an orchestra and chorus on their best form. Pappano has probably done nothing better in his first two seasons.

Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, his longtime colleagues on a series of opera recordings, are back with him as a team, ideally cast as Marguerite and Faust. Gheorghiu was in gleaming voice, looked just slightly odd in Marguerite’s blond-as-Heidi wig, and sang with thrilling abandon even where she was doing a duet with the prompter. Alagna is always at his best in French opera and his tenor was locked firmly in his grip – no longer quite the well-cushioned sound it was when he first came to Covent Garden, but ringing out proudly on Faust’s top notes.

It was a wicked idea to get the Royal Opera’s Wotan-in-waiting to practise his royal duties as king of the underworld. Bryn Terfel made a predictably prodigious Méphistophélès with voice and character to spare, not the kind to blush at going through with one of the producer’s more embarrassing ideas. Simon Keenlyside sang a stronger-than-usual, man-of-war Valentin, every note firm and true. Young bass Matthew Rose was an impressive Wagner, Sophie Koch a bright-eyed Siébel, though lamed by an exaggerated stage limp, and Della Jones made Marthe a caricature of the harridan lady next door, winning most of the evening’s laughs in the process. This was potentially a fabulous cast. All a producer needed was a spark of inspiration off the devil’s fiery trident.

Unfortunately David McVicar has lost his touch. The idea of a Faust set in the France of Gounod’s declining years was not a bad one, and the production has had some money spent on it, but no two scenes seemed able to maintain the same tone. A raucous visit to the “Cabaret L’Enfer” seething with can-can girls in fishnet stockings and black boots promised to shake the opera out of its complacency, but that was followed by a courting scene for Marguerite and Faust as dusty as anything from the 1950s. The crucial confrontation of good and evil in the church fell flat. Then the Walpurgisnacht ballet went over the top with Terfel’s Méphistophélès throwing off his black cape to reveal himself in drag, dolled up as Queen Victoria’s rugby half-back twin sister in tiara and sequined black evening-dress. We were not amused.

As well as the television relay there is a live Radio 3 broadcast and a free showing on the big screen in the piazza at CG, all next Saturday, so everybody who is interested will be able to weigh up the conflicting merits of this prestigious Faust.

Enjoy the singing and to Hell with the rest.

Robert Thicknesse, The Times, 14 June 2004

3/5 STARS

So expensive, and yet so cheap. Welcome to International Opera, where the universe’s most rarefied stars jet in, the prompter helping out when they forget if it’s Tosca or Traviata. David McVicar is the ideal director, a man platonically disengaged from the tiresome specifics of the art form.

That muffled squawk during the ballet was me completing my bingo sheet of McVicarisms  black cathedral interior, smoke and spotlights, cavorting topless gayboys, transvestism, chick-on-chick action . . . Scorning to confront Gounod’s ineffably bourgeois Faust, McVicar gives us instead a tour d’horizon of the big musical, scattering bits of Phantom, Les Mis, An American in Paris and Hello, Dolly! through his idea-free zone. He has a sniffy disdain for Gounod’s mercantile masterpiece and any audience vulgar enough to like it. His Faust is about a cheap deal cut by Heaven and Hell for the possession of a pair of souls, but since he’s far too sophisticated to believe in any of that stuff, he chucks in a war-is-hell scene (Franco-Prussian variety) to shore up his liberal credentials.

The idea of Faust corrupting Marguerite is obviously a no-no in this knowing world. Instead she is a material girl in a blonde wig strolling through the Cabaret l’Enfer. Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna are performers who have taken glossy blandness to its lucrative apogee. From Faust’s staggering dotard to Marguerite unwrapping her jewels like just another parcel from Cartier, to colour-by-numbers love duet, not for a moment do these two stray from the path of convention.

They are, naturally, perfectly easy to listen to, Gheorghiu spinning out a perfect, creamy skein of sound, but your eyes and attention skitter away from them if there’s anything else to look at, even Bryn Terfel and Della Jones as Mephistopheles and Marthe making ham in the corner.

Ah, Bryn. More St Bernard in cavalier fig than Prince of Darkness, he is still a dream, irrupting from the floorboards and dragging some humour and drama up with him. He is all coarse, swaggering style, even in a dress  yes, that’s right, a dress.

Simon Keenlyside is there as Marguerite’s doomed brother Valentin, dignifying everything he touches and, as he dies cursing his sister, bringing a worrying hint that some of this might actually matter.

Moving swiftly on, McVicar will have none of that. It’s all style some quite classy and enjoyable, such as the church scene and the terrific ballet, choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan, rerunning the story in nightmare form for Faust’s edification. Antonio Pappano conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra prettily. For the rest, it’s perfectly mediocre, perfectly empty, perfectly whorish.

Rupert Christiansen, The Daily Telegraph, 14 June 2004

Royal Opera scores another bull’s-eye

Two miracles at Covent Garden. The first is that all four stars of this eagerly anticipated new production of Gounod’s Faust made it to the opening night and gave exciting, if flawed, performances that justified their reputations.

The second is that, following Richard Jones’s enthralling version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in April, the Royal Opera scores another bull’s-eye with David McVicar’s gorgeous and intelligent staging of a Victorian warhorse unjustly derided by the modernists. For sheer eye-popping theatricality, this is a spectacle that outdoes anything you’ll see in the West End.

Charles Edwards’s wonderful designs set the action in a space that combines elements of a Gothic revival church with the interior of Garnier’s opera house and the back streets of pre-Haussmann Paris. This imaginatively reflects the world that Gounod’s music inhabits, and McVicar peoples it with sharply-focused characters and a vivid sense of the hypocritical values that underpin it. In a subtle final image, a sober-suited God tips Mephistopheles the wink – this is a tragedy in which their heaven-and-hell morals are all too agreeably complicit.

Just as importantly, the production is meticulously rehearsed and executed, with flawless scene changes, exquisite lighting, magical pantomime effects, and the brilliantly witty transformation of the Walpurgis-night orgy into a nightmare pastiche of Giselle overrun by priapic members of the Jockey Club. Bravo, McVicar.

As Marguerite, Angela Gheorghiu makes some ravishing velvet noises and flings herself into the role with passion. But there was too much inaccuracy and sloppiness in her singing (she was heavily prompted), and her French is rubbish. Roberto Alagna’s Faust was marred by patches of bellowing and top notes sustained to the point of vulgarity. Some softer, easier phrases were beautifully done, however, and he, too, acted enthusiastically.

Bryn Terfel’s Mephistopheles was all the better for being so understated – a little rough in the first two acts, perhaps, but chillingly authoritative in the latter part of the opera. His dragged-up appearance as the Comtesse de Castiglione in the ballet was a show-stopper.

As Valentin, Simon Keenlyside sang “Avant de quitter” too aggressively for my taste, but provided an electrifying death scene. I wasn’t taken by Sophie Koch’s gracelessly sung Siebel, but Matthew Rose made his mark as Wagner. The chorus fulfilled its major role magnificently.

Antonio Pappano’s fresh, buoyant and affectionate conducting inspired the orchestra to pellucid playing, putting paid to Gounod’s undeserved reputation for lachrymose simpering.

All performances are sold out, but don’t despair if you can’t queue for the seats released on the day, because BBC2 will broadcast the production live on June 19. One way or another, don’t miss this fabulous show.

Robert Maycock, The Independent, 12 June 2004

Spectacular reinvention of a 19th-century warhorse

If you knew that Charles Gounod’s Faust was showing up at the Royal Opera for the first time in 18 years, and that the leading roles were going to be another on-stage love affair between the public’s favourite husband and wife duo, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, you’d be ready for a safe deferential production to hold them like a crown bearing the jewels. If you then heard news that the night’s sensation was the ballet in act five, you’d think the reporter was mad, mischievous or just ignorant. But it happened.

The superstar couple sang their hearts out and even managed to act passably enough to take their place, along with the howling, biting, sword-swinging, sexually aggressive dancers as two of the strengths in director David McVicar’s spectacular reinvention of a 19th century war-horse with a dodgy reputation.

Surprisingly for such a popular and successful work, this was only the company’s second production since 1938. It seems to be musicians who thought it unfashionable, along with a disdain for its treatment of the love element in Goethe’s fable at the expense of its philosophy.

The public appetite for it has lasted and no wonder. The second and third acts present a dazzling sequence of well-characterised arias.

Among the most stylish cast members was Simon Keenlyside as Valentin, an ungrateful role with a mean spirit, but before that emerges, a suave and stirring aria which he sang with aplomb.

Bryn Terfel in a bewildering succession of suits from cartoon cavalier to full drag, gave Mephistopheles a believable, domineering menace, without compromising the splendour of his voice.

Sophie Koch made a fetching moment of Siebel’s exquisite number. And then the two big draws: Alagna pushing uncomfortably hard at first but achieving a kind of elegance as well as energy, Gheorghiu eloquent and fluent from the start, the “Jewel Song” supple and eager rather than flashy.

McVicar’s rethink started by moving the action to Second Empire Paris. The waltz was danced like a cancan in Hell’s Cabaret. Then in the later acts, the vision turned dark.

The seamy underbelly of glitzy Paris emerged as the Devil took over Faust’s soul. Two cruel humiliations of Marguerite were done with harrowing directness. For her redemption, she was summoned by a God who appeared in the flesh like a banker with angel’s wings.

And that ballet. Faust, successively degraded, was now injecting drugs. An episode that is usually slightly ridiculous turned into a nightmare vision of, perhaps, what the ballet girls really had to do for the ogling gentlemen.

Tricky, yes, but a searing 10 minutes that haunts the imagination long after.

Fiona Maddocks, The Evening Standard, 14 June 2004

Superstars of opera prove devilishly good

The thunderous applause was unequivocal. The Royal Opera’s annual starry production, this year David McVicar’s new staging of Gounod’s Faust, had hit the mark.

Out had come bicycles and children, semi-naked tumblers and dancing demons, superbly drilled tricolorwaving crowds and an imposing Cabaret-cum-Phantom set by Charles Edwards.

Without superstars and flamboyance, Faust lapses into a mawkish mixture of depravity and religiosity from which even the delicious French melodies, vintage 1863, cannot save it. This is one reason it hasn’t been seen at Covent Garden for 18 years.

Bring on Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu (can we now drop the opera’s Posh ‘n’ Becks soubriquet? They have more combined talent and far fewer tattoos) plus Bryn Terfel in diabolical black spangly drag and the work is improbably elevated to near masterpiece.

Alagna exuded energy in the title role. As the old Faust – here suggesting Gounod himself – he conveyed real depressive nihilism and quivering decay. On trading his soul for a second youth, he gyrated spryly across the stage and won gasps for his cartwheeling. Not bad for a 40-year-old.

But his voice is not improving: thrilling at its soaring best, there were patchy moments when he had to yank himself up to those tenorial top notes.

Once there, he held on for dear life.

Terfel brought robustness and deadly charm to his first Mephistopheles but seemed uncharacteristically veiled in vocal resonance. Yet even in momentary second gear, he lights up any performance. Simon Keenlyside (Valentin) sang his heartrending Avant de Quitter ces Lieux, the best aria in the opera, with burning lyricism. Sophie Koch’s Siebel was fresh and engaging. As Marguerite, Angela Gheorghiu was in her element, despite being got up like the blonde girl in Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergeres. Her entire performance was exhilarating, her celebrated Jewel Song taut, expressive, girlish, sluttish, technically impeccable.

You could sense the rapport between cast, musicians and conductor. In Marguerite’s farewell Antonio Pappano drew a pianissimo from the players so hushed that the audience seemed to stop breathing in order to hear. What other opera orchestra could play like that?

Terry Edwards, retiring this season as chorus director, will sign off with his team at their brilliant best. Even the ballet, daringly ironic and nastily ghoulish, was for once tolerable. See it free in Covent Garden piazza next Saturday or live on BBC2; a fine night in or out.

Paul Levy, The Wall Street Journal Europe, 18 June 2004

“Faust” Worth Selling A Soul For

Because of its stellar cast of Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Bryn Terfel, Simon Keenlyside, Della Jones and Sophie Koch, David McVicar”s stupendous Royal Opera production of Charles Gounod”s “Faust” has been sold out for a long time. But this is opera at its grandest and best, and it is worth haunting the box office for day tickets, returns or standing room. And there is good news for the ticketless: Saturday”s performance (which will start at 6 p.m. local time) will be broadcast live on a big screen in Covent Garden Piazza, as well as on BBC2 and BBC Radio 3. Even better, the production will be revived for eight performances in October, with a different but equally exciting cast. Charles Edwards”s sets and Brigitte Reiffenstuel”s costumes set the piece in 19th- century Paris, with what is either the construction site or the ruins of the Paris Opera on one side of the stage, and a church organ loft on the other. Many of the costumes are from familiar paintings of the era — when Marguerite stands on her balcony, she calls to mind Manet”s woman at the bar of the Folies Bergere. The grandeur of the sets solves the big dramatic problem of the first two scenes, normally (and drearily) staged in Faust”s book-strewn study and a bare town square. But this visual treatment also resolves the biggest problem of all.

The plot is simple — an aging scholar sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the return of his youth and sensual pleasures. A modern secular audience has no difficulty believing in Faust”s behavior. But what is in it for the devil? Without the theology, it is hard to comprehend emotionally why the devil wants or needs Faust”s soul. The beauty of this production (and Mr. Terfel”s performance as Mephistopheles) is that it gives the devil his due motivation. Satan is an old rogue — and an old ham, a mischief-maker who enjoys watching the results of his interfering experiments. As he says later, the opera-house set is his empire, the stage his domain. His box of tricks is a theatrical trunk. It is no surprise when the frail Faust, bending over it, sheds his cloak, glasses, gray beard and wig, and bounds up as a virile, young, cartwheel-turning Faust. Mr. Alagna was once a gymnast, and I was a little more impressed by his stunts than by his high-Cs. I also was impressed by his acting. Mr. Alagna has been wooden in several past roles, but he makes a convincing old man.

Ms. Gheorghiu is a touching Marguerite, singing the role with warmth and color and acting so commandingly that at several show-stopping moments, the audience knew better than to break the tension by applauding. Even so, Mr. Terfel acted and sang them off the stage. His is a performance that won”t be forgotten by those privileged to see it. His mere stage presence is electrifying. He stared intently at Faust while they were on stage together; he had only to move one sinister centimeter to make you shudder. Though the part lies a little low for his voice, Mr. Terfel is capable of modulating from a sung sigh to the crack of thunder, with no loss of control or beauty. (In the revival, Mephistopheles will be sung by Mr. Terfel”s only possible rival, John Tomlinson.) Luxury casting has the principals supported by Mr. Keenlyside, singing gorgeously and doing his own stunts, as Marguerite”s soldier brother Valentin; Ms. Koch, lyrical in the trouser-role as her local suitor, Siebel; and Ms. Jones as her randy neighbor.

To gild the lily, Mr. McVicar and Michael Keegan-Dolan (choreographer for Dublin”s Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre) have turned the Act V ballet, usually just a divertissement, into a chillingly intrinsic part of the plot. At the moment in the ballet when the apparitions of Cleopatra, Helen of Troy and two Eastern beauty queens are revealed beside Mephistopheles, Mr. Terfel slips off his hooded cloak and is revealed in black satin ball-gowned full drag. The ballerinas, barefoot but in correct 19th-century white costumes, are dancing part of “Giselle.” Its plot involves jilted women, and when the prima ballerina appears, she is shockingly pregnant — just like the abandoned, condemned Marguerite. When the ballerinas shouted curses over the music, it was enough to make audience members feel faint. Antonio Pappano, the ROH”s music director, conducted an orchestra at the top of its form, and at the curtain calls made a gesture — unique in my experience — of bringing up the chorus director, Terry Edwards. Indeed, this was the Royal Opera chorus”s finest hour, their dynamic contrasts so dramatic that their quietest passages were hardly more than a heart-tugging tuneful whisper.

Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, 20 June 2004

Faust – dated kitsch is depressing

There is a long-held view of Faust  one I don’t share  that Gounod’s opera is a heap of meretricious, sanctimonious Victorian garbage. Wagner called it “musique de cocottes” (whores’ music), and his acolytes have generally followed suit. Bernard Shaw, the self-proclaimed “perfect Wagnerite”, derided New York’s Metropolitan Opera House  which opened with this opera in 1883 and revived it incessantly  as the Faustspielhaus (a clever pun on the Wagner shrine, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus). Lofty critics have invariably snorted “soft porn”, while the public has rejoiced in some of the best tunes ever written for the theatre. Faust’s celebrated Salut! Demeure, chaste et pure (known to older British gramophiles as All hail thou dwelling, pure and lowly), Valentin’s solo, Avant de quitter ces lieux, Marguérite’s Jewel Song, Mephisto’s “Laughing” serenade, the rumbustious Soldiers’ Chorus  every one still an astonishing “hit”.

Musically, at least, the Royal Opera hits the jackpot with its star-studded new production. Antonio Pappano and his ROH orchestra make magic of Gounod’s insistently memorable melodies and his evocative orchestration  the usually cut Act IV ballet interlude is restored, and it’s a treat to hear it delivered with such elegance, panache and brio  and the management has opened its chequebook wide to field a cast that few international houses could equal today. Roberto Alagna is the youth-seeking doctor, his wife, Angela Gheorghiu, the ingénue victim of his lust, Marguérite, Bryn Terfel their diabolical nemesis, Méphistophélès, and Simon Keenlyside Valentin. It is a glamorous night at Covent Garden, recalling the galactic line-ups of the Solti and (early) Colin Davis eras in Bow Street. Tickets, needless to say, are like gold dust, but for those unable to get them, the house opened its doors to the cameras last night for a live relay on both television and the big screen on the piazza.

At the premiere (June 11), the audience erupted after most of the singers had delivered their hit numbers and, apart from one solitary boo after the ballet  a tasteless parody of the “white act” of Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle, in which Marguérite, pregnant by Faust, is manhandled by her companions, who also dig up the body of her dead brother, Valentin  seemed delighted with David McVicar’s production. I wish I could share their enthusiasm. McVicar’s vision of Faust’s Walpurgisnacht is, admittedly, the nadir of an evening of hideously dated theatrical kitsch, but it’s hard to see how Faust will survive in revival unless the ROH can attract patrons who like their Faust vulgarised as a low-budget Phantom of the Opera.

McVicar’s new-found penchant for cheap spectacle and moth-eaten operatic ham is particularly depressing when one considers his brilliantly austere and focused work for Opera North (Sweeney Todd), Scottish Opera (Idomeneo) and ENO (The Rape of Lucretia). With an evidently lavish budget, he encourages his designers, Charles Edwards (sets) and Brigitte Reiffenstuelm (costumes), to throw plenty of arresting visual ideas at Faust, but they are indiscriminately applied. Some strike the mark  I loved the sight of Terfel presiding over the Walpurgisnacht in tiara and black lamé ball-gown drag  but mostly, it is desperate overkill: scantily clad tumblers hogging the Kermesse scene, the delicious waltz choreographed as a tacky nightclub routine, with a chorus line wiggling their bums synchronically, and, above all, the vile Act IV ballet. Gounod’s opera sinks under the weight of this ghastly fiesta of Grand Guignol camp.

At least there is the music, conducted with grace and elemental vigour, and the singing is pretty terrific, although Alagna’s tone now sounds grey and dry (not inappropriate for the prologue, when Faust appears as a wizened old man). But he grows in vocal vigour and his French is wonderfully clear and poetic, a luxurious rarity today. He may not be subtle, but he hits most of the G-for-Gounod spots. Gheorghiu is an unlikely innocent  she looks like a tart in her appearance at McVicar’s Cabaret Enfer  and her dirty-girl, Carmen voice sounds wrong for the Jewel Song and Garden duet, but she comes into her own, soaring with quasi-religious ecstasy in the Prison trio. Terfel is Terfel, which means his Mephisto is almost a carbon copy of his Don Giovanni, charismatic but coarse-grained, and he lacks ideally resonant bass notes. Keenlyside is the vocal and histrionic star of the show as Valentin a superb performance. Sophie Koch sings nicely as Siébel, but is saddled by McVicar, for some inexplicable reason, with a wooden leg (and a bicycle!). C’est une idée but not a very good one. Della Jones rasps gamely as the brothel madam, Marthe Schwerlein (Marguérite’s chaperone, or pimp, here).

Opernglas July-August 2004 (M. Lehnert)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Faust (11 June, Royal Opera House)

Sponsored by the bank, Coutts, who have been linked to the ROH for a very long time, it was without doubt the most spectacular cast of the closing season of any opera house in the world that met in Summery London: the quartet Gheorghiu, Alagna, Terfel and Keenlyside. More golden voices are probably hard to find and would be unlikely to cause a comparable furore.

The differences between the top performances thrilling every operatic heart were marginal. The noble, trumpet-tenor Roberto Alagna was fully aware of the brilliant effect of his bomb-proof top notes with which he crowned his stylistically excellent singing. The singer, appearing in a dressing gown as old Faust, had come across as impressive from the beginning; he had paid deliberately attention to remaining believable and concentrated on not overdoing the performance. But after his metamorphosis in front of an opened wardrobe-box, and with a fantastic cartwheel he henceforth went through the action with tails and top hat in a charming, likeable and affectionate way like Heinz Rühmann [a German actor] in his best movies. Alagna’s singing left nothing to be desired; his artistry in differentiating and controlling his voice created another showpiece role of fascinating aplomb, which must make the last sceptic of this exceptional singer fall silent. We wish for many more such perfect role-incarnations by him for a long time; they give Alagna a say in the international business of the coming years ahead of todays’ tenors.

José Cura won’t have anything to object to in that he was called as a witness in the guise of an autograph card attached to the lit mirror of the large artist’s box that Mefisto [sic] had carried along for Faust – one of David McVicar’s numerous ideas for his allegoric, exaggerating production of the Faust-story. It draws on plentiful resources throughout, plays on the decorations between church and opera house and puts onto the overflowing stage the taut soldier’s life as well as the atmospheric nocturnal and almost picturesque ensemble of buildings where Marguerite – here the head of a cabaret – is visited by Faust in her rather middle-class apartment on the first floor. McVicar made a virtue of necessity and made cramming a stylistic device. The conception is successful, blasphemy and the Evil One’s magic are visualised, visual quotations include the organist and composer Gounod as well as the legendary Paris opera house the became a myth of its own, later, when it formed the frame for the plot of “The Phantom of the Opera”. On the stage of the Royal Opera House in London the whole opera became a phantom, saved in the end by God the Father in tails with angel’s wings. Thus the good had won, the definite twinkle of the eye and British humour were unanimously applauded by the audience. The production’s quality is so dominant that all  the critics that usually like to be open-minded towards the modern “Director’s concept“ had to abstain from any carping or begging to acquire status, because this might have been found to also be part of the production’s concept. Bravo!

Angela Gheorghiu as Marguerite succeeded in creating another brilliant role-incarnation. Right from the beginning the character was not designed as a silly German blonde but as a young, dynamic head of a cabaret, which came across as tailored to fit the attractive singer. Vocally la Gheorghiu surprised with a definite instinct for brilliantly focused effects of her soprano that outshone the ensembles effortlessly with concentrated colour, and mastered transitions between registers just as easily and presented the singer in impressive form. This was another top class interpretation that was joined by two more: That she went mad about her brother Valentin’s death in a duel came across as particularly credible also because the production permitted Simon Keenlyside to give more importance to this episodic character. That he had the vocal ability to do so was beyond doubt. That a singer of his quality did not feel too good for the comparatively small part does him credit. Thus it was not astonishing when his famous aria, performed with mellowness and effect and full of character, was rewarded with most passionate applause. The same was granted – and also deservedly so – to Bryn Terfel during his role debut as Méphistophélès. Fluency and flexibility in parlando make him “sit” on this part, as the saying goes [?]. The colouring did not become a nail-biter when it came to intonation but served the role portrait to round off perfection. A showpiece-role for Terfel who was able to pull out all the stops in his acting too, from the cloak-and-dagger villain with the attitude of a theatre devil to the transvestite who in black evening gown and diadem joins Cleopatra and Helena of Troy and introduces the grotesque ballet. Quotations from “Giselle” with the prima ballerina as heavily pregnant dancer typifying Marguerite’s fate during Walpurgisnacht once more dealt a realistic adrenaline rush to the would-be harmless relict production. One short and lonely boo tried to use this adrenaline rush as cheap propaganda.

He did not have any chance: The production’s team and the singers were acclaimed shortly but passionately in equal measure, among them rightly also Sophie Koch as Siebel who is gifted with spinto qualities and Della Jones, full of character, as Marthe Schwertlein. The applause for musical director Antonio Pappano also turned out friendly. He may not have made the most of the score’s effects and maybe did not set his own interpretative priorities but with chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House he at least paid attention to accompanying in a bandmaster’s way, thus adding to the overall impression of a well-rounded production that impresses with overflowing images (Charles Edwards) in equal measure as it plays with the more conservative audience’s minds.

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