Gounod’s Faust was not particularly successful at its first performance in 1859, but it became more popular as the 19th century progressed, continuing through the 20th century until it began to lose its drawing power. By the middle of the 20th century, it had become a routine offering for the bourgeoisie, exciting the disdain of such as Nancy Mitford*. Like some other 19th century operas (such as Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann), Faust does not seem to have much relevance to our time. Indeed, it is a feminist nightmare. Poor Marguerite, seduced, impregnated and abandoned by Faust, is reviled by all and sundry, and only “saved” by divine intervention. This scholar Faust, furthermore, unlike that of the original Goethe or the even older Christopher Marlowe, doesn’t seem the least bit interested in knowledge and the mysteries of the universe, just the joys of the flesh. The Germans find it such a stretch from Goethe that there it is performed under the title Marguerite.
This production by David McVicar has already been around the traps in Europe (Covent Garden, Monte Carlo, Lille etc) and is doing a similar tour of Australia under the “revival director” Bruno Ravella. Having been seen in Sydney it is currently in Adelaide, and thereafter heading for Perth. It is a marvel of colour and movement, updating the trappings of the story to Gounod’s own time with nods to the present day, such as Faust shooting up in Act IV (not exactly novel, for instance Donna Anna does the same in Peter Sellars’s 1989 production of Don Giovanni). While the momentum of the production, combined with spirited musical forces, carries the show along with few longueurs, it does little really to bring the work into the 21st century, either by digging beneath the surface to expose its moral shortcomings or reflecting some irony on the values implicit within it. Which of course did not stop the audience from taking it at face value and having a good time.
Practically every scene provided some clever trompe l’oeil or other; in Act III, a large apparently marble sculpture disassembled itself to reveal the very much alive Méphistophélès and a couple of demons. A number of stunning tableaux of choristers assembled in town squares and courtyards, and the blocking which moved such groups around the stage was masterly. The performance of the ballet in Act V was a prerequisite for the work’s acceptance as “Grand Opera” in Paris in 1869; it has been less frequently included in performances in more recent times, but is given full rein here. The introduction to this scene indicated the setting of a traditional opera house, giving way to a more pastoral scene, but with remnant trappings of a theatre, including a hanging proclaiming ‘Giselle’, a cue for a passage of classical 19th century ballet.
The costuming did, as indicated, adhere to the garb of the later 19th century, with a few deliberate anachronisms, Faust’s more elderly persona wearing sunglasses, for instance. Méphistophélès on the other hand was garbed and coiffed for the most part like Charles I. His appearance in Act V in a dress but with the same hair and beard arrangement is somewhat inexplicable, perhaps just a hint that he presides over a realm of perversion in the midst of 19th century puritanism.
The reliable Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Kynan Johns provided lively support, and the State Opera Chorus were also excellent under the direction of SOSA’s hyper talented CEO and Artistic Director, Timothy Sexton. I was unable to identify in the program the dancers whose contribution was significant, with (revival) choreography by Shane Placentino.
The SA company is always to be congratulated on its judicious casting, perhaps dictated by financial conditions, but always making the most of local Adelaide and wider Australian talent. On this occasion, the internationally acclaimed bass Teddy Tahu Rhodes (originally from New Zealand, often claimed as Australian, now domiciled in the US) took the role of Méphistophélès, for which he is eminently suited. His charismatic onstage presence dominated every scene he was in, and he obviously took delight in his saturnine wickedness. Vocally the role also suits him very well, his reliably accurate voice soaring effortlessly over the orchestra, with its burnished resonance gracing every phrase. The title role was sung by Australian tenor James Egglestone, who has a nice clear and carrying voice if a little weak in low notes; his Act III cavatina was shaping nicely until disturbed by an unfortunate crack. Kate Ladner, so good in 2013’s Salome, shone as Marguerite, her gleaming high soprano dealing effortlessly with the Jewel song, and bringing warmth to the King of Thule. Baritone Michael Honeyman was vocally indisposed on the night, and his part was sung from the wings by Jeremy Tatchell. While this led to a slightly discombobulating ventriloqual effect, once one got used to that, his singing was more than acceptable. Siebel was portrayed by local girl Cherie Boogaart, one of the significant participants in last year’s Philip Glass festival; her very attractive mezzo-soprano is delivered with an effective fast vibrato, and her portrayal of the vulnerable young soldier was excellent.
*A strong Puritan streak made [Blor, the Nanny] despise pleasure. Her father disapproved of the theatre and she had never seen the inside of one until I badgered and wheedled my mother to let me go to the Opera. I was fifteen and under the influence of Tolstoy’s novels at the time. The word Opera signified the World in all its wickedness and glamour; nothing to do with the performance, of course – I was after the House, with its boxes, its foyer and its coulisses, gallant men in opera hats and lovely women in opera cloaks, gazing at each other through opera glasses. Blor and I went off together to a matineé of Faust, at Oxford. I need say no more. (Nancy Mitford, The Water Beetle (1962), p.11).