Faust - Royal Opera House, 18 September 2011 (first night)
Despite some outstanding performances from a top-drawer cast, this second revival of David McVicar's Faust somehow fails to hit the mark. Part of the blame is of course Gounod's - never afraid to cut a flowing story dead in its tracks with a crowd-pleasing ballet or drinking song.
But McVicar doesn't seem to trust the material either. Méphistophélès gains a crew of panting, cackling, stage-hogging spirits, a visual and aural distraction whenever they appear (too often). Dancers squeal and yelp and thunder around like rhinos (I'm surprised no-one at the ROH clamped down on this racket - surely if it's not in the score, it shouldn't be on the stage?). The chorus are padded out with over-busy extras.
Charles Edwards' imposing sets lend gothic flavour but confuse. Are we indoors or outdoors, and why is there an organ loft in every corner? The Second Empire setting is a purely decorative choice that like the contemporary paintings quoted in the design adds nothing to the story. A Giselle-parody ballet that ends with a 'pregnant' dancer being kicked around the stage was simply nauseating. I can't recall a production that's forced me to look away from the stage quite so often
So let's get on to the singers, the real raison d'être of the 3 hour-plus experience. Rene Pape is the devil himself, the picture of cool despite a cocker spaniel wig and a succession of extravagantly camp costumes culminating in a ballgown and tiara. A few passages lie uncomfortably high in his range, but he stamps his authority with laconic charm throughout. His seduction of/by the widow Schwertlein displays his usually-hidden comic gifts, and for those in the front rows, a bit of Roger Moore eyebrow acting adds the final touch of suavity. It's worth going to see just for his performance.
Poor Vittorio Grigolo knocked himself out at the general rehearsal when the last in a lengthy succession of misbehaving props, a chest lid, crashed down on his head moments before the end. But he's bounced back with no apparent damage, flinging himself around the stage like a pre-op puppy. The French clearly doesn't come readily to him, but his full, masculine timbre and effortless technique are a rare wonder to hear. To play the aged Faust (disguised for no logical reason as Gounod himself) he thins and wavers his sound without ever losing line or tonal beauty - and he makes it all sound so easy. If it hadn't been for McVicar's shrieking ninnies bursting in every five minutes, I could have been carried away like Marguerite by his passion and ardour.
Goodness knows who talked Angela Gheorghiu into a ghastly Bet Lynch blonde wig. It adds the years that need to be subtracted. But after a breathy, nervous start she gave the best performance I've heard from her in the last few years, instantly locking in to Marguerite's sweetness and vulnerability, cosying up to her prompt box for the big moments. Her mad scene was all the more touching for its restraint, and her apotheosis seemed earned. Blimey. Maybe she'll turn up for all her performances too, who knows?
I can't imagine anyone handling the thankless role of Valentin more adeptly than Dmitri Hvorostovsky, noble and rousing and endless of breath. We heard some rare decent French from Michèle Losier, bravely assuming a hideous porridge-coloured suit and wig as Siébel. Young Daniel Grice held his own with the vets as Wagner and the ever-reliable Carole Wilson made a formidable Marthe Schwertlein.
I almost forgot to mention conductor Evelino Pido, who seemed to enjoy the music more than the orchestra did, but despite this coaxed out a hearty performance.
curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com
curtain call video: