Everybody knows the tale of Faust although Gounod’s popular five-act, Parisian grand opera from 1859 is in fact adapted from Michel Carré’s play ‘Faust et Marguerite’ which was itself based on Part I of Goethe’s epic poem Faust. Very much reflective of the nature of Second-Empire Paris at that time, the obvious question is whether its themes remain relevant and recognisable to a 21st C audience.
Director David McVicar wisely recognised that human nature doesn’t really change and the issues of sensuality and hedonism, religion and morality, bourgeois consumption versus socialist redistribution, to name but a few at the heart of this opera, continue to go hand in hand, and his richly layered 2004 production for Royal Opera House brilliantly captured these through the artificial edifices of theatre and church.
Fast forward to this fifth revival under director Bruno Ravella from 2019 which in light of recent pandemics, global recessions, and scandals, serves again to show the relevance of this work with its continuation of spectacular sets, costumes, and extensive dance.
So back to the original question: with the state of the world around you, would you make a deal with the devil? Here, an aging Faust (Michael Fabiano) enlists the supernatural powers of the devil Méphistophélès (Erwin Schrott) to make him youthful and successful in love, in exchange for his soul. What he doesn’t foresee is the damage his pact will cause to those around him.
Assisted with his pursuit of the fair and innocent Marguerite (Irina Lungu) despite the protestations and protections from her brother Valentin (Stéphane Degout) and his colleague Wagner (Germán E Alcántara); a love-struck teenager Siébel (Marta Fontanals-Simmons); and her friend Marthe (Carole Wilson), when Faust has finally ruined Marguerite then the battle for her soul, between good and evil, is finally and fully played out. And as for Faust’s soul, can it ever be saved?
This is a wonderful production that owes much to the rich tapestry of layers provided by Charles Edward’s sumptuous and towering sets, with Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s period costumes perfectly reflecting both decorous and decadent tones, cast from the shadows created by lighting designer Paule Constable’s exquisite exploitation of light and dark from which the action necessarily unfolds.
Michael Keegan-Dolan’s original choreography is equally well revived by Emmanuel Obeya and the injection of a chilling ballet led by Principal Dancers Megan Griffiths and Yasset Roldan took us on a frightening journey from the raunchy can-can of ‘Cabaret d’enfer’ to a grotesque orgy with a chilling twist.
Conductor Dan Ettinger delightfully leads the orchestra of the Royal Opera House which shines with Gounod’s gloriously tuneful score which includes such famous numbers as Marguerite’s flamboyant ‘Jewel Song’ and the rousing soldiers’ chorus. Degout’s Valentin was strongly sung and full of depth whilst Fontanals-Simmons made a lively Siebel and Wilson injected humour in the small role of Marthe.
Lungu gave an emotional and moving performance and I enjoyed her duet with Fabiano leading to the balcony scene. Schrott and Fabiano worked well together in a master-pupil relationship with any question over the sincerity of Fabiano’s Faust revealed when his mask finally slips to reveal his calculated arrogance.
The standout performance for me was Schrott showing that not only is he a fantastic singer but also a fine actor with a performance full of seductive wit, elegance, and swagger that almost has us drawn in before we realise how malign and evil the good natured charm of this theatre impresario from hell actually is. Weinstein anyone?
Faust is available to view for free for until 30th July 2020 at https://www.roh.org.uk/
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 17th July 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★