The charisma of Mephistopheles, Satan, the Devil, is fading in these irreligious days but in Gounod’s ‘grand opera,’ Faust, this archetype of evil both creates the whole terrifying story and then illuminates it with his fiendish red glow. Seeing the Royal House’s revival of John McVicar’s dramatic and lavish staging, I was struck by how the relationship between the two men, Mephistopheles and Faust, dominates the action so that even the victim of their wicked scheming, Marguerite, has to work hard to hold our attention.

Perhaps this seems more true when there are two very strong singers in the roles which the Royal Opera House have with Dan Ettinger as the devil and Michael Fabiano as Faust. In the first scene when the old and tottering Fabiano longs only for death but instead barters his soul to Mehphistopheles for youth, both men show that they not only have powerful voices, commanding or melodious, but that their unholy pact sets them off on a particularly male dream of sensual pleasures.
One man may be malicious and the other weak but they arrive and leave together like virile men on the prowl. Wagner famously noted that Faust and Mephistopheles were like ‘…two Latin Quarter schoolboys prowling after a female student.’ Although possibly he was not altogether objective as Faust was triumphing in Second Empire Paris at the same time as Wagner’s Ring Cycle was making its way.

This year the Opera House has had problems with the casting of Marguerite. First of all Dana Damrau dropped out for April performances, then on the First Night, Irena Lungu withdrew with a throat infection and fever. Happily, her replacement, Mandy Fredrich did a beautiful job of depicting the devout young women whose life is turned towards God but who can be easily corrupted by sparkling jewels and a persuasive young man. Her singing of the famous ‘Jewel song’ with its opening lines, ‘Ah! Je ris de me voir/ si belle en ce miroir…’ (Ah! I laugh to see myself so beautiful in this mirror…’) is glorious.

Marguerite’s dual nature, which causes her so much suffering, mirrors Gounod’s nature. He encouraged his own religious fervour by training for the priesthood and, for a while, even termed himself Abbe. Unfortunately – or fortunately for opera lovers, he never could resist the sins of the flesh. His church-going nineteenth century audience understood very well the dilemma faced by Faust and Margerite and thoroughly enjoyed every aspect, including Marguerite’s desperate prayers for forgiveness which, despite Mephistopheles’ best efforts, in a mesmeric scene masquerading as God himself, eventually prevail. The place of the church organ in this opera which recalls the heavy voice of judgement, can never be underrated.

But Faust, having killed Marguerite’s high-minded brother, Valentin, (sung with anger and sorrow by Stephane Degout) heads ever downwards to the hell he deserves, not forgetting eternal servitude to Mephistopheles. Acts IV and V increases the visual splendour. ‘Faust’ had opened at the Theatre- Lyrique in 1859 and, before it moved to the majestic Paris Opera in 1869, Gounod had added a ballet and changed the original spoken words to recitative. David McVicar with set designer Charles Edwards and Choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan gives the audience a bold take on the lure of hell versus the church. Decadent sylphs in traditional ballet skirts illustrate the univirginal possibility of white gauze.

One might comment that as usual the devil has all the best tunes, except that would be to overlook Valentin’s lovely aria ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ (before I leave this place) which was another addition to the original manuscript, and Marguerite’s exquisite special pleading as the baby she’s murdered lies front stage in an illuminated coffin.

Between 1863 and 1911 Faust was performed at the Royal Opera House fifty times, that is, in every season. It’s a hard record to beat but this production is good enough to run and run, particularly if it can find another cast as exciting as the present one.

Charles-Francois Gounod
Conductor Dan Ettinger
Director David McVicar
Designer Charles Edwards
Reviewed by Rachel Billington

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