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.