Gounod's Faust makes a much welcomed return to the Royal Opera House. With each new cast, the dynamic changes as the balance between singers shifts and brings out new insights. In that sense, every revival is an opportunity to revisit from new perspectives. This time Bryn Terfel sang Méphistophélès, with Joseph Calleja as Faust – stars whose allure certainly helped fill the hall to capacity. And the audience enjoyed a very good show.
The opera starts in darkness: Faust knows all about the world from books, but hasn't lived. Maurizio Benini's tempi were slow, suggesting that Faust is perhaps on the point of death when the pastoral theme bursts into the overture like a breath of Spring. When Calleja cried "Rein!", his anguish was heartfelt. As the youthful Faust, Calleja is much more in his element. His natural exuberance makes his Faust cocky rather than intellectual, but that's a perfectly valid interpretation. When Calleja sang "Salut! demeure chaste et pur" he held the spectacular long note so fluidly, the audience went into rapture. Calleja's Faust is a good-old-fashioned Italian (Maltese) wide boy, oozing charm. His rapport with the Margeurite of the evening, Alexia Voulgaridou, was good: they were singing together rather than at each other. There's a difference.
Bryn Terfel created Méphistophélès for this production ten years ago, so it was big news when he substituted for another singer at short notice. Terfel is always a force to be reckoned with, even when forcefulness dominates his singing. Méphistophélès gets away with things because he's sly. The delicate background of pizzicato around the part suggest half-glimpsed flashes of hellfire. Rather more cunning on Terfel's part might have been more in character. Terfel's Méphistophélès and Calleja's Faust don't mesh together well, though both singers are masters at working an audience. Terfel's performance this time round was interesting because it showed just how "Gallic" Gounod's Méphistophélès is, in contrast to Goethe's original, and to Russian manifestations, Think Chaliapin. When René Pape sang the part in 2011, the urbane sophistication he brought to the part made it truly sinister.
Alexia Voulgaridou has sung Marguerite many times. As soon as she began singing, her experience showed. She may not be as high profile as Sonya Yoncheva, who has appeared at the Met, with whom she shares the role, but she inhabits the role with great conviction. In her Jewel Song, her rich timbre evoked the sensuality underlying the purity in Marguerite's personality. Voulgaridou is physically very small, but energetic, suggesting the innate strength in the role. The revival director, Bruno Ravella, has dispensed with the silly blonde wig that made Angela Gheorghiu look wrong in 2011. It's the singing that counts, and most of the good ones these days have Latin complexions, perfectly right for a French heroine.
Simon Keenlyside is a perennial House favourite, but here his Valentin seemed underdeveloped. He has the notes but pushes them a little too hard, though his "death aria" was evenly paced an d well presented. Keenlyside's Valentin could have been the brother of Terfel's Méphistophélès. In 2011, Dmitri Hvorostovsky intimated that there's more to Valentin than the libretto alone might indicate. Renata Pokupić's Siebel was spirited. This is an unusual part wihich could be shaped well by someone with Pokupić's individuality: perhaps she'll make it a signature role. Jihoon Kim sang Wagner. Next season he will become a company principal, deservedly so, as he's very good. Diana Montague sang Marthe.
The designs in this production, by Charles Edwards and his team, also reference the "Frenchness" of Gounod's idiom. In the cathedral scene, Marguerite prays before an ornate Baroque sculpture, from which Méphistophélès emerges. In modern, secular times the idea of sacrilege might not be as shocking as it was in 19th century France, so this staging is an excellent way into the deeper levels of meaning in the opera. The military choruses, for example, would have resonated with audiences for whom Napoleon III and the Crimean War were topical. Marguerite's predicament, too, highlights the hypocrisy of a world in which one unmarried mother s condemned while the image of another is revered. The Walpurgis Night ballet is staged in the context of the Paris Opéra,, where patrons lust for young dancers, just as Faust fancied Marguerite. The choregraphy, originally by Michael Keegan-Dolan and revived by Daphne Strothmann, was brilliantly executed - the male principa,l Eric Underwood, was particularly expressive, his physical agility underlining the erotic undercurrent that runs through the whole opera.
This article appears in Opera Today.
Photos c Bill Cooper, courtesy Royal Opera House