Royal Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Faust” should come with a warning: it beguiles you, opens you up and then packs a series of precision punches in the last act, just like Méphistophélés in the story. The programme warns just about the single gun shot near the end of Act II.
Charles-François Gounod’s “Faust” is one of the grand operas. it’s also the opera of the Faust story that is most often performed. It’s grand in the sense of long, grand in scope because it deals with the big and universal themes of life and death, love and betrayal, and grand because the cast is the soloists, chorus, extra chorus, actors, acrobatic dancers and ballet dancers. It’s not a cheap ticket either but it’s worth it, certainly this Royal Opera production from 2004 is worth it.
I’ve tried getting in to Gounod’s “Faust” listening at home and it doesn’t work: for me it’s too long and it drags. I can imagine the French would have presented it like a classic long-style French meal, lots of courses, each individual offering from the kitchen divine in its own way.
Covent Garden give us Acts I, II and III without an interval, beguiling us and wearing us down; refreshed and lubricated by the interval refreshments, the emotional punching starts in Act IV and continues in Act V, right up to the final trio of Marguerite, Faust and Méphistophélés which is delivered direct to the audience from the faux prompt box front centre stage. Tonight was the last night of this revival and of course they kept nothing back and it was a thrilling climax.
As well as the emotional enticement and then punching, there’s the ballet, and the same happens there. A classic set of ballet dancers in white frocks get hijacked by the acrobats who strip off their shirts and we get a rancid bacchanal. Even the famous soldiers chorus in Act IV starts jolly foot stomping and becomes bitter-sweet as indeed war glory is. There’s another side to that Charles-François Gounod as well as the nice parochial church music he wrote when he was in England.
There are some lovely lighting touches: the shadows from off stage cleverly extend the stage before we have ever seen Marguerite but have heard of her loveliness; the little footlights for the Cabaret de l’Enfer and you can almost touch the moonlight in Act III. The acrobatic dancers in Act I doing double and triple backwards somersaults and any number of other Cossack type moves that most of us would fold up in a heap if we tried one of them. Great to see the best of them up there on stage.
The production style drives the roller coaster of emotions as the style changes from Act I post-seventies Visconti operatic gothic to nineties brutal abstract for the prison scene in Act V, with apparently just bars and blacks.
Most of the French pronunciation was fine and no matter that I sometimes found myself reading the surtitles and translating back to French because of the interesting pronunciation, But I’m very happy to have heard a real Italian tenor here in a great London production than any of the other possible combinations.
Opera is about suspension of disbelief and this evening's presentation was magnificent.
Click here for my review of Terry Gilliam’s Faust at ENO
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Michael Keegan Dolan