Faust


Charles Gounod - Faust

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Alain Altinoglu, Jean-Louis Martinoty, Roberto Alagna, Paul Gay, Tassis Christoyannis, Alexander Duhamel, Inva Mula, Angélique Noldus, Marie-Ange Todorovitch | Opéra Bastille, Paris – 16th October 2011

When is Gounod’s Faust not Gounod’s Faust? For many people who think they know the opera well, I’m sure that they would find the new 2011 production for the Paris Opera unfamiliar in many respects – but the question is historically a great deal more complicated than that. A great admirer of Goethe’s work, Gounod had been planning an opera on Faust for almost thirty years, but between finally starting work on it in 1855, it receiving its first production at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in 1859 in a heavily cut form, and its appearance at the Paris Opera, many subsequent revisions were made to the work.  With additional arias inserted later to suit singers in productions around Europe, with the whole work revised again by Gounod in 1866 to eliminate spoken dialogue and make it a fully-fledged opera, it can be difficult to determine what exactly is the true form of Gounod’s Faust.

Faust has probably been debased even further over the intervening years. A popular favourite, the dramatic representation and any sense of coherence has often come secondary to ensuring that the crowd-pleasing songs, marches and waltzes showcasing the extravagance of the orchestration, the singing and the famous setpieces meet audience expectations. Many operas have scenes of iconic power, but are there any with quite so many in each act as Faust? With its initial meeting between Faust and Mephistopheles, the Fairground waltz and the Ivan the Terrible soldier’s march in Act 2, Marguerite’s Jewel song in Act 3, Valentin’s duel in Act 4 and the Walpurgis Night debauch in Act 5 – to name just a few of the stand-out moments – Gounod’s Faust is one long procession of memorable moments, drama and melodrama, mixed up in meditations on love, romance, nihilism, philosophy and religion. With so much to cover and so many expectations to meet – and with such a history of cuts and revisions – there’s not however much sense of coherency in Faust, and there’s little that bears resemblance to the original work and themes of Goethe.

Faust

How much of the opera is as Gounod intended is difficult then to determine, but it has certainly been molded a great deal by the necessity of meeting the demands and conventions of the French Grand Opera tradition. That’s how it’s traditionally presented, that’s how I am familiar with it, and that’s pretty much the way it was played at the fine Royal Opera House production directed by David McVicar broadcast in HD around the world just a few weeks ago. Surprisingly then, few of the familiar conventions were adhered to in the Opéra National de Paris’ new 2011 production at the Bastille directed by Jean-Louis Martinoty and conducted by Alain Altinoglu (after the departure of Alain Lombard early in the production). If there is some inevitable disappointment that all the old favourites aren’t played out quite as you remember them or would like them, the new Paris Opera production is at least a brave attempt to restore some of the true qualities of the work back to its original form. If you are going to radically rework a familiar opera however, you need to have something else to pique the interest of the audience, and while that is admirably achieved here to a certain degree, some of the decisions are nonetheless questionable and some of the staging is quite curious.

The staging, as is often the case at the Bastille, appears to be aiming to fill the large stage with as much impressive set design, spectacle and colour as possible, rather than being quite so faithful to the demands of the opera. In the case of Faust however, there are certainly plenty of showcase scenes to merit the spectacle, and some of them really have an impact. The main body of the stage – as it was with McVicar’s producton last month – uses the scientist’s study as the basis for the whole opera. Here, the semi-circular raised rows of bookcases are a constant reminder – while there is often not much else to remind you in the opera – of the desire for knowledge, experience and answers that has ultimately led the doctor Faust into a bargain with the demon Mephistopheles, selling his soul for a life of abandon and debauchery that, up until her dramatic sacrifice and salvation, almost also claims the pure and innocent soul of Marguerite.

Great vertical use is made of the stage, with huge crosses and an enormous skeleton descending down to the stage, as well as raising figures and objects, and no small amount of smoky dry ice from “down below”. If some of the choices are curious, not exactly naturalistic and perhaps not quite how we are used to seeing Faust depicted –the aforementioned skeleton and Marguerite’s bed covered in greenery and forming part of the garden scene some of the stranger elements – they all at least fit into the main themes and concepts of the battle between good and evil, science and nature, knowledge and the purposes that it is turned towards.

Faust

Some of this works however and some of it doesn’t. The skeleton forms one of the best effects during the waltz during the fair of Act II, whirling and trailing ribbons over Mephistopheles as he leads the dance beneath. On the other hand, Roberto Alagna’s transformation from old academic to young man isn’t the most inventive. Employing an actor who lip-sync mimes to Alagna’s off-stage singing, it avoids the tricky transformation (clevery done in quick change mode by Vittorio Grigolo in the ROH production) – but Alagna makes enough of an impression when he does appear to make up for this. Valentin’s death also lacks traditional impact, since he has no sword and is struck by Faust with an oblique blow (which indicates of course that it is Mepistopheles behind the action), but the extraordinary manner of him dying standing on his feet is quite striking.

Another reason for the seemingly deliberate lack of traditional impact however is the measured tempo of Alain Altinoglu’s conducting of the Paris Orchestra which avoids all the usual added punchy emphasis, sounding almost like how one would approach Wagner’s German Romanticism more than how we are accustomed to hearing Gounod played. The playing of the orchestra was marvellous and, although one misses all the usual tics, this more thoughtful and lyrical approach did however cast an entirely different perspective on the work and indeed worked marvellously with the romantic and religious elements that dominate it. The opera unfortunately still has many gaps and lapses of dramatic continuity that prevents such an approach from fully coming together, so it wasn’t entirely satisfactory, raising perhaps more questions in the curiosity and unfamiliarity of the staging instead of making it any clearer or coherent, but it was a welcome approach nonetheless.

Even if the dramatic action or the musical interpretation didn’t always play into the hands of the singer looking to make an impression in these great operatic roles, the singing was nonetheless wonderful. Roberto Alagna was in fine shape physically for the role and in good singing voice also. Personally speaking, I don’t find him the most charismatic of performers, but by the same token he’s not show-offy, he does have a beautiful tone to his voice and always delivers a flawless singing performance. You couldn’t ask for more from a Faust. Inva Mula, who I last saw singing wonderfully in the Paris Opera’s revision and restoration of Gounod’s almost forgotten Mireille (on Blu-ray), is in even finer voice here as Marguerite, her French pretty much faultless, her singing glorious, appropriate and in keeping with her character. Paul Gay didn’t always carry the kind of seductive charm of Mephistopheles or sound entirely firm on the lower register, but his performance was warmly received by the audience, as was Tassis Christoyannis – an excellent Valentin, even if he wasn’t given much leeway with the role.

FaustCharles Gounod - Faust

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Evelino Pidò, David McVicar, Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Michèle Losier, Daniel Grice, Carole Wilson | Live HD Broadcast, 28th September 2011

It’s not too difficult to see why Faust is considered one of the jewels of French grand opera, nor why, featuring as it does in no less than three opera houses in my viewing schedule this quarter up to Christmas (Covent Garden followed by the Paris Opéra and the Met in New York), it still remains a popular fixture in the repertoire of many major opera houses around the world. With a tragic love-story, whose content is boosted somewhat with a cruel encounter between evil and innocence, all wrapped up in a sense of religious fervour, the purpose of the storyline might deviate from the original intentions of Goethe’s classic tale, but it has all the right elements for a passionate opera subject.

The storyline however is actually the least convincing thing about Faust, but the emotional range covered across those Manichean divisons provide Charles Gounod with everything he needs to spin it out into a wonderful variety of musical arrangements. It opens with the aged scholar Faust despairing and disenchanted with a life devoted to study that has failed nonetheless to provide any great revelations or even meaning. Given the chance by the demon Méphistophélès to seek the pleasures elsewhere, it’s a vision of a beautiful young woman, Marguerite, that convinces Faust to enter into a bargain that will mean the loss of his eternal soul. The dark, nihilistic tone of the opening – the first word spoken by Faust is a bleak utterance of “Rien”, “Nothing” – gives way to a sense of joyous hedonism, conquest and seduction that stands in stark contrast to the daily lives and modest passions of ordinary people and soldiers going to war. By the end of the opera, each of those characters is judged for their actions.

Within that not particular complex or surprising storyline where, of course, virtue is rewarded, there is nonetheless a wealth of tones, moods, emotions and tempos, and Gounod gathers them together with the all the most wonderful arrangements available to a composer of grand opera. Filled with memorable tunes and famous arias, including Marguerite’s famous Jewel Song, Faust also contains a fabulous waltz, rousing marches, numerous choruses and a ballet – all of which never fail to sweep up the audience and get feet tapping. And if that’s the simple measure by which you judge any performance of Faust, David McVicar’s production for the Royal Opera House, with the superb playing of house orchestra under conductor Evelino Pidò, broadcast live in High Definition to cinemas across the UK and the world, was unquestionably a success.

Faust

I’ve never been particularly taken with David McVicar productions, failing to see much in the way of a convincing concept or even a personal touch in his style other than it usually being a hotchpotch of random and generic opera theatrics. That’s the case here with his production of Faust, but it’s a style that works quite well with this particular opera. There might be little to distinguish the all-purpose set, but with a couple of adjustments and a change of lighting it’s able to switch very effectively between a scholar’s study and a church with an organ or between a street-scene and a night-club cabaret. Even the random elements in the wings – the opera house boxes on the left, the pulpit on the right – provide space for nice little touches and coups de théâtre on a stage where there is always something interesting going on. The Act IV Walpurgis Night ballet was undoubtedly one of the high points of the staging, but McVicar’s one little perverse touch in this opera of having Méphistophélès dress as a woman in the scene where he shows Faust the queens of the world actually worked quite well. I would never have thought anyone could get away with putting René Pape in a dress and tiara, but it actually suits the nature of his character here perfectly.

The big selling-point for this particular production however is its top-flight cast that in addition to Pape as Méphistophélès, has Vittorio Grigolo as Faust, Angela Gheorgieu as Marguerite and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Valentin. If none of them are distinguished actors, you really couldn’t fault their singing. Each and every highpoint for their characters was reached and in most cases even surpassed. Grigolo started off slowly as the aging Faust, but more than came into his role as the younger rakish seductor (as he did when I last saw him in last year’s TV production of Rigoletto) while Pape, wearing a string of fine costumes was an appropriately magnetic and imposing presence in his demonic role.

Most impressive however was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who really put a heart and soul into Valentin with an absolutely knock-out, spell-binding performance, but it was also helped by McVicar’s strong direction of his scenes, using the character for additional impact. Surprisingly, it was only the diva Angela Gheorghiu, who really failed to shine. She sang perfectly well, if somewhat underpowered in the role of Marguerite (a consequence perhaps of the cold that saw last Saturday’s live radio broadcast replaced by a recording?), but failed to find the right level to pitch an admittedly difficult character. Sometimes however, it’s difficult to differentiate whether she’s wrapped up in her character or just wrapped up in herself. All in all however, this was a fine production of Gounod’s classic, well up to the exceptionally high standards we’ve come to expect from the Royal Opera House.