David McVicar’s production of Gounod’s Faust, set in 1870s Paris, is back at the Royal Opera House and brings with it some fresh as well as familiar talent.
The main stage is a luxurious haven away from the frenzied madness of Covent Garden and offers the perfect space to escape into the epic story of Faust and Marguerite. McVicar’s production is bountiful and makes optimum use of its allotted three-and-a-half hour running time. It is not often that a performance of that length can maintain the interest of its audience, but Faust manages to remain captivating for its entirety; perhaps this is why this particular opera has always remained in vogue. With a vast array of impressive set changes that utilise the gigantic space, as well as illustrious costumes and devastating dramatic moments, Faust is a thoroughly engaging production.
The movement in the first act is perhaps a tad clunky. Happily, this is more than rectified after the intermission by the powerful ballet, choreographed by Michael Keegan Dolan, that encapsulates the hellish environment in which Faust (Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja) now finds himself a prisoner. Satan’s playground is bustling with eerie and disturbing sequences that are both unsettling and entertaining. Welsh bass-baritone and Billy Connolly doppelgänger Bryn Terfel is no stranger to Mephistopheles, having played the satanic figure in 2004. He has gravitas in his performance and commands the stage with an electric presence that fluctuates between sinister and frequent comical turns. He meets his match in the fifth act, in the form of a Christian figurehead in black tie adorned with fluffy white feathers – Marguerite’s redemption is slightly undercut by the ridiculous figure of Christ.
The role of Marguerite is played by Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva and Greek soprano Alexia Voulgardiou on alternate nights: for both it is their first time singing as the character. Yoncheva delighted the audience on this particular night, who in return showered her in vocal praise at the show’s end. For them, it was she who stole the show. Marguerite’s descent from pure, virginal heroine to ruined woman is a familiar tale that remains heart-wrenching in this latest illustration, and Valentin’s rejection of his pregnant sister upon his return from war is the emotional climax of the show.
A special mention must be made of conductor Maurizio Benini, who works ferociously from the orchestra pit to give fevered leadership that injects vitality into the entire production. For much of the show I found my eyes wandering to his frenetic movements that are equally as impressive as the action on stage.
The Royal Opera House offers a space that can transport its audience far away from the chaotic bustle of the shopping capital of London. David McVicar’s Faust extends this pledge further by offering the audience a magnificent tale brimming with vigour. Aside from a few odd choices, this production is a worthy testament to the endurance of Faust.
Faust is playing at The Royal Opera House until 25 April. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore.