Gounod’s version of the Faust legend could only have been written for Paris. This Faust is not a man in search of wisdom or knowledge or power. He is a sad old man looking to recapture his youth – which he does along with all the torments of the thoughtless adolescent. And the Mephistopheles who provides him with his heart’s desire is a cross between a conjuror and a ring master, entirely failing to inspire the sort of terror one might expect from a self respecting prince of darkness. And poor Marguerite is punished with despair and death for the “crime” of surrendering her virtue to the man she – unwisely – loves. The fact that God forgives her and saves her soul seems a bit of an afterthought. Quite how this opera reached the heights of popularity that it did in late nineteenth century Paris eludes most modern critics, this one included. There is a lot of very lovely music and some fine dramatic moments but it is not an opera that merits deep thought or frequent productions.
The ROH team do a great job of a making the most of Gounod’s music and the first thing to say is that it is a huge privilege to hear Joseph Calleja, Bryn Terfel, and Simon Keenlyside, three of the best male singers in the world, on the same stage, all singing at the top of their form. And Sonya Yoncheva, replacing Anna Netrebko as Marguerite, has all the qualities to match them for beauty of tone and expression, despite the dubious dramatic material she has to work with. The chorus is in great voice but the orchestra under Benini gives a solid rather than inspiring account of the score.
The staging is imaginative and visually striking. The city scenes work well and the departure of Valentin for the war is a telling moment. But whenever Bryn Terfel is on stage he dominates and this unbalances the production. His voice is better than ever and the voice is matched by the swagger of his portrayal of Mephistopheles. The devil doesn’t necessarily have all the best tunes but in this production he certainly has all the best dramatic moments. Some scenes in the production teeter on the brink of cliché – Mephistopheles first appears rising through a trap-door onto the stage in a cloud of dry ice. At the start of Act 4 he appears as a statue looking just a bit too like the human statues which appear all over London in the summer to entertain the tourists. The Walpurgis Night scene, often omitted, is played in full and, though the ballet is beautifully done, it adds nothing to the development of the drama.
This production is a real achievement for the Royal Opera and once again they have achieved world class standards of singing. Though it’s an opera that perhaps does not deserve this level of care and creative energy this production almost obscures its shortcomings with the strength of its staging and the sublime singing.