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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust, grand opera in five acts (1856/59) [175.59]
Faust – Piotr Beczała (tenor)
Marguerite – Maria Agresta (soprano)
Mephistopheles – Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)
Valentin – Alexey Markov (baritone)
Siebel – Tara Erraught (mezzo-soprano)
Wagner – Paolo Rumetz (baritone)
Marthe – Marie-Ange Todorovitch (mezzo-soprano)
Philharmonia Chor Wien (chorus master: Walter Zeh)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Alejo Pérez
Stage director, set and costume designer – Reinhard von der Thannen
rec. live, August 2016 Salzburg Festival, Großes Festspielhaus
Additional production and technical details at end of review
EUROARTS 2097034 Blu-ray [185 mins]

“It may well be regarded as the inauguration of a new era in French opera.”
R.A. Streatfeild on Gounod’s Faust (from The Opera: A Sketch of the Development of Opera)

This release on EuroArts/Unitel is director Reinhard von der Thannen’s striking new production of Gounod’s Faust filmed live in 2016; surprisingly the opera’s first ever staging at the Salzburg Festival. I notice that Austrian broadcaster ORF transmitted the production live from the city’s Grosses Festspielhaus.

An outstanding cast is led by Poland tenor Piotr Beczała in the title role displaying his credentials as one of the most in demand tenors on the world stage today. See my 2016 Dresden interview. Ildar Abdrazakov embodies a seductive and demonic Mephistopheles (Mephisto) and soprano Maria Agresta stars as Marguerite, who struggles to resist temptation and gain salvation.

Described on the score as a ‘lyric drama’ Gounod’s fourth opera Faust a grand opera, took him almost three years to write. The French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré combines part one of Goethe’s dramatic poem Faust, in the French translation by Gérard de Nerval, with a contribution from Michel Carré’s own adaptation Faust et Marguerite. The hero of the traditional German folk-tale the academic Doctor Faust a philosopher and alchemist makes a pact with the devil Mephisto in exchange for superhuman knowledge, regaining his youth and power. Faust has a brief relationship with Marguerite a young maiden and soon abandons her. Marguerite becomes pregnant by Faust and has a child who she kills. Whilst in prison awaiting the hangman Marguerite rejects the offer of escape from Faust and Mephisto and turns over her spirit to heaven before dying.

Faust was premièred at the Théatre-Lyrique, Paris in 1859 to lukewarm reception but its revival in 1862 was more successful. For its production at the Paris Opéra in 1869 Gounod made revisions including adding ballet music to the score. At the pinnacle of his career with Faust Gounod rapidly achieved international distinction and for more than half a century after its première it was probably the most popular opera in the répertoire. Gounod’s Faust was in fact the opera selected for the inauguration of the New York Metropolitan Opera House in 1883. Evidently its high frequency of production there led to the frivolous idea proposed jokingly by the New York music critic William James Henderson that the Metropolitan Opera House should be renamed the “Faustspielhaus.” Whilst no longer distinguished as the number one opera despite temporary changes in vogue its status has endured reasonably well. I notice that the operabase.com list of the current rankings in terms of performances of the most popular operas worldwide places Faust at number thirty-six and the third most popular in France.

Austrian born stage director Reinhard von der Thannen also responsible for the set and costume design provides a production with distinctly contemporary, frequent white and black, sometimes monochrome look which gives a curiously dispassionate rather antiseptic quality. There is a contribution by Birgit von der Thannen providing dramaturgy and conceptual participation. I find the booklet essay titled Concept Discussions with Reinhard and Birgit von der Thannen by Alexander Fahima so pretentious and it actually overcomplicates matters to the extent that I can imagine those reading it first being put off attending or even watching this production. Sounding just as forbidding is the house programme that evidently features a twenty page analysis of the opera’s history and von der Thannen’s production by Mirjam Schaub a philosophy professor. There are numerous cases in point of von der Thannen being unable to resist employing aspects of Regietheater. Clearly I haven’t detected all the examples however changes include: There is certainly no spinning wheel in sight for Marguerite, in the irreverent song Le veau d'or (The Golden Calf) Mephisto cavorts with a diminutive dancer/acrobat ripping off both her black hood and clown outfit to reveal a silver sequined body suit with matching face mask. No baby is to be seen only a small box, also the swords carried by Faust, Mephisto and Valentin are shrunk to the size of small daggers and at the conclusion the celestial chorus singing Christ est ressuscité! (Christ is risen!) wear their clown suits rolled down to reveal black valet waistcoats with a white carnation. Looking more like a rabble or mob than angels they gradually encircle Marguerite lying on the floor of the illuminated circle, bow together over her twice as she dies and all turn away grinning creepily. Disappointingly in this rather secular production there is no indication of Marguerite’s soul rising to heaven.

In a similar way to Stefano Poda’s 2015 Turin Faust that displays a giant dark coloured, stone-like ring which dominates the stage, von der Thannen uses a mis-en-scène high on symbolism, that is not easy to decipher, and also employs rings that feature prominently. In truth it is not worthwhile spending time on the meaning of von der Thannen’s symbolism and intentions which are sometimes too convoluted for their own good such as those represented by the feathers in the hats, ravens on perches, the model red roofed house and church spire on wheels, giant puppet skeleton and the giant daisy both suspended from the roof, portable dressing room, no jewels for the famous Jewel Song just a sequined silver stole from a wardrobe and high backed dining chairs with turf seats and daisies. Who on earth wants to have to keep consulting the directorial notes to try to find out what is happening on stage? Many of the changes to the traditional mis-en-scène seem both wilful and pointlessly overcomplicated.

At the centre of the stage where the action takes place the backdrop is a ring (or eye) cut out of a white oval shape in a rather art deco pattern. This oval design which is predominantly white does change colour keeping to lighter shades mainly of pink, grey and blue. When lit from behind the eye makes a good vehicle for highlighting at various times the individual entrances of Faust, Mephisto and Marguerite. Below the design is a gentle arched platform that serves as stairway to the floor at either side. Maintaining the ring theme, centre stage a light coloured illuminated circle on the stage floor, which changes colour and can descend into the stage floor, is conspicuous throughout at various times containing a hospital bed and a portable dressing room. Another prominent feature occasionally seen is a silver coloured, circular room with no roof that slides open shut with the outside dotted by light bulbs.

For the principals von der Thannen’s clothing designs are probably more twentieth-century than the librettists original intention of sixteenth-century Germany but are none the worse for that. Faust is bald in act one as he sits in his giant chair surrounded by great piles of documents and ravens on high perches. His clothing is a dark velvet look all-in-one suit and matching gloves with a white amice. Faust later in an inky black wig wears a white formal dress suit. Next he dons a black formal dress suit with white waistcoat sometimes wearing over it either a dark silk dressing gown dotted with white flecks or a long dark overcoat, top hat and cane. Marguerite is robed plainly in long sleeveless dresses in white with front pockets for the early acts and a similar dress now black for the later acts. Mephisto initially wears a long brilliant white overcoat with ornate velvet collar and lapels, and a white large brimmed fedora hat with matching feather. Under all this is a white waistcoat with a narrow red band serving as a cummerbund. Like Faust, Mephisto is later dressed in a black formal dress suit with white waistcoat with on top either a dark silk dressing gown dotted with white flecks and a long dark overcoat, top hat and cane. In mainly pseudo-military themed dress the fair haired Valentin wears blue/grey jodhpurs with black riding boots and white long sleeve vest. Letter for sword fighting he has added a cushioned shoulder and arm protection. Siebel which is a ‘trouser role’ is required here to sport a fair coloured false beard and moustache to match her tied back hair. Wearing a dark waistcoat and trousers with braces over a white shirt this is a style that unquestionably doesn’t flatter her.

Von der Thannen is reasonably creative with his clothing designs for the considerable combined troupe of chorus and dancers which reminded me of the design concept he used when working with director Hans Neuenfels on Lohengrin at the 2014 Bayreuth Festival. As whiteface clowns with red cheeks and eyes made up to look like crying, the colour beige is the order of the day for the ubiquitous all-in-one baggy clown outfits with a black underarm stripe. All the women have jet black earphone hairstyles and the men are bald wearing pointed clown hats. As the overture comes to an end the main curtain opens to reveal a large sign in the centre of the stage reading ‘Rien’ (French for ‘Nothing’) probably meaning we are born with nothing and die with nothing; no doubt intended to stimulate audience deliberation prior to the fateful deal to follow between Mephisto and Faust. At the conclusion of the opera it is no surprise that the ‘Rien’ sign returns to hang over the stage.

Demonstrating his vocal prowess Piotr Beczała excels with the challenges of the title role and its multifaceted character. Faust is a learned German philosopher and alchemist and one senses that Beczała is living the role providing an abundance of convincing characterisation despite the director’s often perplexing concept. The tenor, who has now added the role of Lohengrin to his roster, sings terrifically and in particular his act three cavatina Salut, demeure chaste et pure (I greet you, home chaste and pure) is entirely engaging displaying his polished voice in such splendid condition together with a steadfast technique. One review of this production I read suggested that Beczała was an outstanding singing actor. Ridiculous! What sauce! He is an exceptional singer that acts so impressively.

Italian soprano Maria Agresta as Marguerite makes a suitably demure maiden. Her demanding scene in act three which includes the celebrated Ah! je ris (Jewel Song), which even without actual jewels is well done generating considerable moving drama although there is some unevenness at times. Marguerite and Faust’s act five love duet Oui, c'est toi, que j'aime! (Yes, it is I! I love you!) is dramatically performed conveying a sense of blissful happiness. Throughout Agresta’s high notes are most reliable and her noticeable vibrato hardly intrudes. Ideal for the role of Mephisto, Ildar Abdrazakov exhibits impressive singing and confident acting able to generate copious qualities of evil intent. Exceedingly macho in the role the Russian bass demonstrates an innate sense of authority and dark resonant tones which he projects powerfully and vividly. Notably in Mephisto’s famous aria Le veau d'or est vainqueur des dieux (the Song of the Golden Calf) Abdrazakov, despite the distraction of the cavorting dancer, displays a marvellous rich deep, appealing tone with a suitable contemptuous tirade and is a real highlight.

Russian baritone Alexey Markov is experienced in the role of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother. In Valentin’s farewell aria from act two Avant de quitter ces lieu (Before leaving this place), asking God to take care of his sister as he goes off to war Markov with reasonable expression confidently delivers a tellingly assured performance. Singing quite delightfully in the ‘trouser role’ of Siebel mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught adroitly displays prowess in her aria from act three Faites-lui mes aveux (Make her my confession) and act four romance Si le bonheur à sourire t'invite (If fortune makes you smile). The mezzo does exhibit some unevenness but nothing to worry about in this agreeably dedicated performance. In the minor roles mezzo-soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Marthe and baritone Paolo Rumetz as Wagner give highly creditable performances.

Argentina conductor Alejo Pérez adopts a committed if imbalanced approach and the Wiener Philharmoniker respond with playing that at its best is lucid, buoyant and expressive but all too often sprinkled with periods of patchiness. Coached by chorus master Walter Zeh the large forces of the Philharmonia Chor Wien, despite wearing ridiculous clown costumes, excel throughout clearly relishing the advantage of such stunning material. Unforgettable is the act four SoldiersChorus and also striking in the same act is the exquisite entrance of the organ in the Church Scene to augment the chorus and orchestra which adds positively to the emotion of Marguerite confronting her demons. In act five the choir of celestial voices with the Easter Hymn and the seraphic voices at the conclusion are other memorable passages.

Despite some reports of complaints about the audibility of the orchestra and cast by audience members at the Grosses Festspielhaus the sound quality heard on the film is excellent thanks to the thirty or so microphones plus wireless systems for the soloists. The booklet contains Fahima’s essay (mentioned above), an indispensable track listing, a helpful synopsis and also several production photographs mainly in black and white. Tiziano Mancini’s video direction is up to his usual high standard although his approach is to avoid getting up real close. Although probably out of his control whilst concentrating on the stage action the angle of the camera positions in relation to the bottom edge of the proscenium obscures the head of the giant puppet skeleton and the top of the giant daisy at times too. Evidently the production team receive some boos at their curtain calls but this footage is not retained by Mancini on this film. Sadly, there is no bonus footage provided of interviews with the principals or creative team which I always welcome.

Stage director Von der Thannen’s overcomplicated concept doesn’t appeal too much although it does improve with additional viewings. Nonetheless with such a sterling cast and the exceptional Beczała in the title role this is a Faust performance to cherish.

Michael Cookson

Additional details:
Choreography – Giorgio Madia
Lighting Designer – Franck Evin
Dramatic Advisor – Birgit von der Thannen
Video Director – Tiziano Mancini
rec. live August 2016 Salzburger Festspiele, Austria
Filmed in High Definition
Picture format: 1090i – 16:9
Sound formats:
a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit
b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz
Subtitles in French (original language), German, English, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese

 

 




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