Gounod's Faust is, on the one hand, a gift for directors and performers – as Geoff Brown says in The Times, “It's a Cecil B De Mille film directed by Bob Fosse, and Hell on Earth in more ways than one” – but it can often inspire productions so over the top with racy ideas and cut-out villains that an audience couldn't care less about the characters on stage. David McVicar's production is one of these, according to the Financial Times‘ Richard Fairman:
The producer, David McVicar, delivers a traditional show at heart. There is an overall concept – Faust represents the aged Gounod, torn between the theatre and the church, and witnessing the closing years of the Second Empire in France – but it feels lazily worked out and rather too susceptible to kitsch. Bring on the semi-naked devils and the cross-dressing Méphistophélès and the camp quota ticks up pretty high.
But not everyone is in agreement. Igor Toronyi-Lalic, writing for The Arts Desk, thought the opposite, and was moved by the production. But how can that be, he asks, with “Gounod's curdled Victorian dessert of an opera, an overwhipped melange of melodrama and misogyny, topped with grand 19th-century dollops of religiosity.” He knows why:
That Faust achieves a level of profundity that at one stage nearly had me in tears is an absolute miracle. The miracle workers? David McVicar, whose revival production is unlikely to be bettered, and a clutch of leads that you'd normally need a pact with the devil – or at least a very amenable bank manager – to bring together.
As Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph points out in his 5-star review,
Nowadays it's fashionable to sneer at Gounod's Faust as a prime cut of sentimental Victorianism. But if you can't enjoy a performance as full-blooded as this one, then I fear you haven't got the point of opera at all.
So who were the other miracle workers? Well, everyone's favourite seemed to be Vittorio Grigolo,
Grigolo's handsome, big-voiced Faust, avid for experience and catastrophically mistaking desire for affection, is wonderfully convincing and sung with sweeping, palpable urgency.
said Tim Ashley for The Guardian. Fairman was in complete agreement,
Grigolo is the new white hope among young Italian tenors and it is easy to see why. As the rejuvenated Faust, he exudes both puppy-dog enthusiasm and the know-how to get his star quality to shine. Just occasionally he over-sings. But for most of the opera, Grigolo makes sure his bright, Italianate self-confidence is shaded with subtle French variety and impeccable artistry.
The Independent was concerned about the over-singing too:
He's putting the voice under more and more pressure and it's surely a tell-tale sign that the high C of his Romance in the third act was, by necessity, pushed in full-voice rather than caressed in head-voice. He's not the first and won't be the last to miss the point of that moment. But there's no denying his vocal and physical charisma – I just wonder how long he can go on singing like this.
Barry Millington for The Evening Standard loved Grigolo, but as he said,
On paper it looked a near-unbeatable line-up, though at this unconventional Sunday matinee not all the stars shone equally brightly.
So who wasn't twinkling? Angela Gheorghiu as Marguerite according to most reviewers.
Marguerite is one of Gheorghiu's finest roles, although she has sung it better than on this occasion, where she got off to an underpowered start, then gave us an imprecise account of the Jewel Song.
commented Ashley, and Brown agreed,
Gheorghiu's blessings were more mixed. For a diva, girlishness doesn't come easy. She further smudged Marguerite with muffled articulation and indifferent French.
Though it was a mixed performance it was, finally, a convincing one, said Brown,
Then, out from the clouds, came top notes that were as fierce as the blazing sun. In the last scene in prison, blonde wig shorn, her acting was riveting, with Marguerite pious in the face of salvation, but twitching and smiling like a creature unhinged.
Christiansen echoed his thoughts,
She is still unsure of her words, still lacking in sparkle in the Jewel song, and still uncomfortable with some lower-lying passages. For all that (and several other small prima donna sins), she is very fine in expressing the character's lyrical heart, and I can't stay cross for long with any soprano who spins such creamy legato and warmly resinous timbre.
And The Daily Express was in no doubt,
Hers truly is one of the great voices of the age.
Hvorostovsky's Valentin was liked by Fairman,
Dmitri Hvorostovsky gives Valentin everything he has and, though the aria lacked Gallic grace, his singing carried quite a punch.
The Independent said,
…expensive casting but value for money and then some in the resolutely long lines of his showstopping aria.
And Christiansen didn't hold back with his praise,
Dmitri Hvorostovsky will also rank with the legends: his Valentin was marked by impeccable technical control and a gripping death scene.
Which leaves the baddy: René Pape was Méphistophélès.
René Pape was simply magnificent as Mephistopheles, his vocal power, histrionic authority and sly wit putting him in the Chaliapin league.
said Christiansen who was obviously having a wonderful evening. Fairman was glad to have the opportunity to hear the German bass who is rarely heard in London.
Hearing his majestic voice in a major role here is a great pleasure, while his playing of the character makes up in authority what it lacks in saturnine charisma.
And Ashley wrote,
It's hard to imagine Mephistopheles's music more beautifully sung. Dramatically, however, he's stronger on malevolence than on irony or wit, which makes him more effective as the tormentor of the final scenes than the insidious charmer of the opera's opening.
Conductor Evelino Pidò was also admired.
Much praise is also due to Evelino Pido, who conducted with tremendous relish and stopped the undeniable soupiness in the score from turning glutinous.
said Christiansen. And Ashley added,
Conductor Evelino Pidò drives it hard, but is also nicely sensual when the music needs it.
So it seems that the Royal Opera House have another triumph to shout about. As Fairman says,
Faust continues at the Royal Opera House until 10 October Photos: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
Opera-goers whose memories stretch back to Faust in 1977, and the unforgettable line-up of Freni, Kraus, Allen and Ghiaurov, may well rank 2011 as an equally fine vintage.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.