There’s a great deal to disapprove of in Gounod’s Faust. It breaks down a pillar of western literature and whisks up what remains into a flouncy French fancy. It turns the hero’s famous striving into mere lust — for a virginal heroine who is cursed by one and all (‘Marguerite! Sois maudite!’, runs the rather-too-catchy refrain), then saved, in a mawkish, tacked-on finale, by celestial powers. It has a ballet, set pieces, jolly choruses and all the unfashionable niceties that Parisian opera in the mid-19th century required.
To distinguish and distance it from Goethe’s play, the Germans used to call it Margarethe, which also reflects the fact that, despite all the Mephistophelian trappings, this is essentially a standard operatic narrative of a pure woman’s destruction and salvation. But David McVicar’s 2004 Royal Opera production seems to realise this: he wisely opts for an unapologetic, gleeful romp that revels in those trappings and emphasises the piece’s theatricality. Sometimes it goes too far, and all the extras — flooding the stage like attention-seeking street entertainers — can get tiresome. But its great achievement is that, without being preachy or portentous, it also brings a genuine darkness to the work — not least in a gruesome Walpurgis Night ballet.
It helps, of course, that the Royal Opera now casts the opera luxuriously, and here Bryn Terfel returned as Méphistophélès to lord over the whole thing magnificently — over-the-top, snarling and cynical, communicating the text with characteristic relish. Anna Netrebko had pulled out a month before the opening night — to no one’s great surprise — having apparently decided Marguerite wasn’t right for her. The Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva stepped in, singing with richness and lyricism, and acting movingly. Her Faust, Joseph Calleja, seemed a little out of sorts: the slight bleat in the voice was more troubling than usual, and the phrasing was occasionally lumpy and ungenerous. Simon Keenlyside, as Marguerite’s upstanding brother Valentin, sang with characteristic commitment and intelligence, but tended to push his voice hard, and was too determined to steal the show in his death scene. Conductor Maurizio Benini kept Gounod’s remarkably effective score moving along nicely.
The Royal Opera had also commissioned a pair of new complementary short works for the Linbury Studio Theatre. Luke Bedford’s Through his Teeth (libretto by David Harrower) is a taut and effective retelling of the real-life story of a serial seducer and con artist. The Faustian element of it is a little subtle, perhaps, but it makes a compelling 55 minutes of theatre, with Anna Devin and Owen Gilhooly excellent in the main roles. Matthew Herbert’s The Crackle, by contrast, seemed more interested in modish technology — it featured interaction with the cast via a mobile phone app, plus the prerecorded voice of Bryn Terfel as a sort of Mephistopheles — than dramatic or musical effectiveness. It was watered down and confused: a waste of a committed cast and, I couldn’t help feeling, a betrayal of the joyous enthusiasm of the Royal Opera House Youth Opera Company.
There were moments in the Novaya Opera’s production of Borodin’s Prince Igor, which filled the Coliseum stage for five consecutive nights at the start of April, where I felt similarly sorry for the singers. Certainly the designation for the opera’s most famous scene — Polovtsian camp — took on new meaning: an excruciating procession of silly costumes, silly dances and silly poses, it unleashed plenty of audible giggles from the audience here.
This was a low point in Yuri Alexandrov’s production, which presented a tightened-up and slightly rearranged version of Borodin’s enchanting but sprawling score (left unfinished at the composer’s death). Much of the rest was also overly busy, but the economy of the telescoped final scene — ending with a haunting a cappella chorus — was made the more affecting as a result. In any case, those wanting a more modern take on this opera will have been able to see Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging in the Met’s HD broadcast in March: here it was mainly about the musical values, which were astonishingly high.
Many of the roles were double or triple cast, and the singers I saw were some of the best I’d heard on the Coliseum stage for a long time. Vladimir Baykov made a thrillingly authoritative and powerful Igor; Marina Nerabeyeva soared majestically, and with a pleasingly acid tang to the voice, through the role of Yaroslavna, his wife. Aleksey Tatarintsev sang Vladimir with a gloriously sweet tone, though I imagine he was won over more by the rich, smooth singing of Agunda Kulaeva’s Konchakovna than by her swooping, swooning dance moves and jangling belly dancer outfit. Under Jan Latham-Koenig, the Moscow company’s chief conductor, the orchestra played with terrific richness of tone and focus, and the chorus was fabulous. Musically, at least, this was a revelation.
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