Music , Classical and opera
Critics' choice
  • 5 out of 5 stars
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© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper
© Bill Cooper

Curiously, in a genre that encompasses so many frankly bizarre subjects, Gounod’s operatic setting of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ has been singled out by some as a step too far in reducing a great verse drama to a tawdry bagatelle of hit tunes.

However, director David McVicar has created an original, unflinching production (here in its first revival) that is both amusing and uncomfortable viewing, certainly in keeping with ‘Faust’ as a morality tale rather than the intellectual lodestone of European literature.

This is best exemplified by the grotesque ballet featuring a heavily pregnant and suffering Marguerite. It concludes with the jewelled casket, which Faust used to seduce her, being replaced by her baby’s coffin – all part of a witches’ sabbath, presided over by Méphistophélès in a lady’s ball gown.

There is so much to like in this production, not least McVicar’s intelligent staging and Charles Edwards’s spectacular set. But the effect is magically greater than the sum of its parts and Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is the special glue that holds it all together: with his stature, comic timing and commanding voice his total immersion in the character of Méphistophélès is complete and believable. In the title role, Joseph Calleja has less to do, but here the Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes, Faust does. The Maltese lyric tenor is one of the greatest of his generation and nails the top Cs effortlessly while appearing quite at home on stage. Simon Keenlyside, as Valentin, the earnest soldier brother of Marguerite, also brings a combination of vocal conviction and dramatic connection.

The pleasant revelation of the evening is Sonya Yoncheva as Marguerite, replacing the celebrated Anna Netrebko (who withdrew for ‘artistic reasons’). Her strong soaring voice, clear phrasing and lively coloratura resulted in an extended ovation following her ‘Jewel Song’.

Meanwhile, conductor Maurizio Benini keeps the music moving at an impressive lick, if occasionally too quickly, as in the devilish ‘Le Veau d’Or’ (‘The Golden Calf’).But with orchestra and chorus on splendid form the collective effect is sensational. Sell your soul for a ticket... or just queue up early for day seats. You’d be hard pushed to find a better version.

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