First produced in 1859 as an opera comique with spoken dialogue, Gounod’s Faust has undergone some changes. For example, the marvellous Act II aria Avant de quitter ces lieux, sung by Marguerite’s brother Valentin when he entrusts his sister to the Lord before going off to battle, was only created when the distinguished baritone taking the role in London persuaded Gounod to borrow a beautiful melody from the prelude to Act I. Faust subsequently became a hugely successful Grand Opera, guaranteed to put bums on seats, until it fell out of favour before WW2, only returning to the Covent Garden repertoire in the mid-1970s.
This David McVicar production, dating back to 2004, stays true to the grand opera concept with its tongue-in-cheek ballet interludes. In the deliberately grotesque and somewhat shortened ballet for the Walpurgisnacht scene in Act V — well interrupted by the top-hats observing it from on-stage boxes — the music was brilliantly conducted by Dan Ettinger, without the tempo modifications one so often hears in serious ballet performances. Ettinger, who once had a career as a lyric baritone, did a superb job with the orchestra, chorus and singers, but it was the performances of the principals that made this so memorable.
Michael Fabiano in the tenor role of Faust himself was sensational — clear with beautifully soft top notes and full emotional commitment. From aged scholar to young man and back to old age at the end, he gave a stunning performance. Matching him as Mephistophélès was Erwin Schrott, whose dark depth and engaging portrayal made him a seducer every bit as capable as the Don Giovanni he has previously played at the Royal Opera. And that laugh: utterly demonic. One would not know he was suffering from a sore throat. Marguerite was originally to be sung by Diana Damrau, but she had slipped a disc, and her replacement Irina Lungu had to withdraw owing to a throat infection and fever, so at the last minute German soprano Mandy Fredrich took over, having previously sung the role in Stuttgart. Arriving only at quarter to 5 for a 7 pm start – and with no time for rehearsal – she gave a remarkable performance, warming up as the evening progressed. What an unexpected and superbly professional debut at Covent Garden.
Among other roles, Stéphane Degout made a very strong Valentin, as did Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Siébel, who invested her early Act III Faites-lui mes aveux with serious passion. Fine vignettes too from Young Artist Germán E. Alcántara as Wagner, and Carole Wilson beguiling as Marguerite’s guardian Marthe Schwertlein.
Under the baton of Dan Ettinger this was a devilishly well-nuanced performance of David McVicar’s now classic production.
Continues until May 6th with a live cinema relay on April 30th — details here.