Georges Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust - Opera in Five Acts. (1859)
Faust - Roberto Alagna (tenor); Méphistophélès - Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone); Valentin - Simon Keenlyside (baritone); Marguerite - Angela Gheorghiu (soprano); Siébel - Sophie Koch (soprano); Marthe - Della Jones (mezzo); Wagner - Matthew Rose (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
Director: David McVicar. Sets: Charles Edwards. Costumes: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
rec. 19 June 2004
Region free NTSC. For playback on all NTSC and PAL systems worldwide. Filmed in High Definition, 50i 16:9 widescreen.
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. Dts 5.1 surround
Booklet essay and synopsis in English, French and German
Subtitles in French (sung language), English, German, Italian and Spanish
EMI CLASSICS DVD 50999 6 31611 9 [2 DVDs: 100:00 + 80:00]

Gounod’s Faust has a particular place in my affections. In the early 1950s, having attended one of Gigli’s farewell concerts - only Frank Sinatra managed more - and being used to listening to opera arias at home, my parents took me to my first live opera, a performance of Faust performed by Sadler’s Wells in Manchester. The cast was memorable. Harvey Allan as Mephisto, Roland Jones in the eponymous role and the redoubtable Amy Shuard as Marguerite. The production was made more memorable by the use of ultra-violet light. Mephistopheles flashing and glowing eye effects remain with me in memory sixty years on. In those far away 1950s Gounod’s Faust was one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. A new production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2004, where the work had not been seen for a number of years, was the 714th - no less - by the Met since 1883; no wonder it was once called the Faustspielhaus! Rather suddenly it seemed to fall out of fashion among those in control of opera houses. It was deemed rather trite by cerebral conductors and critics who clamoured for new works and a move away dependence on those from the 19th century. A production at English National Opera in 1985 restored the spoken dialogue to reveal a significantly different work, an Opéra comique. It did not, however, presage a revival of interest. My last live performance of Faust was by Opera North in 1991 with an excellent cast of Richard Van Allan, Anne Dawson and Arthur Davies. Whilst not as memorable as my first, the production was sensible and recognisable although it did not include, presumably because of cost, the ballet. Meanwhile whilst the Verdi renaissance now has all his twenty-eight titles on CD and the welcome Rossini renaissance has gathered pace, Faust continued to gather dust.

Faust was composed for the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in the opéra comique tradition with spoken dialogue. However, Gounod’s intentions were butchered by the management and the diva with the result that the premiere in 1859 was not as the composer intended. Over the next ten years, as Faust was seen and acclaimed all over the world, Gounod added to and amended the score to meet the needs of various singers and managements. The ballet was added for production at the Paris Opéra. In consequence there is no definitive version of the work. With much autograph material in private hands none seems likely. The timing of this performance indicates some cuts to normal fully-staged versions and certainly is not as complete as many CD recordings such as that on Teldec (4509 90872). Contemporary reviews questioned some cuts, and their rationale, particularly the omission of Marguerite’s Ils ne revient pas and Siébel’s Si le bonheur.

When Covent Garden announced this production under Antonio Pappano, its Musical Director, I thought it might presage renewed interest in the work. It has hardly seemed so. When it was announced that it was to be broadcast on terrestrial television in the UK by the BBC - not something that happened very often - I didn't feel like Nostradamus in predicting a DVD version. It is just that it has been a long time coming. Perhaps its appearance on EMI rather than Covent Garden’s own Opus Arte indicates delicate negotiations relating to artists’ contracts. Anyway, filmed in High Definition it is technically superb viewing via my Panasonic up-scaling Blu Ray player and latest LCD/LED television.

This Covent Garden production is set and dressed in the time of the work's composition rather than the medieval period of Goethe's conception and Gounod's intention. The late Patrick Connor’s booklet essay gives a picture of Paris in the period before Baron Haussman’s revitalisation of parts of the city during the Second Empire. The purpose of the essay is questionable given that Marguerite is here somewhat idiosyncratically and exquisitely dressed and coifed. It also seems to be in contradiction of the production’s set and milieu as well as the dress of the other locals. A note on the chequered early history of the opera, and its change from an opéra comique, would have been more germane. Nonetheless the other costumes and sets were such that I could easily recognise the opera as Faust. Méphistophélès’s six costumes, including appearing in drag complete with tiara in the Walpurgis Night (May Day night) scene (Disc 2 Ch.9) is a little over the top. The acrobats and dancers in the Kermase (Easter Fair) with its Cabaret Enfer is well done with the chorus singing a vigorous student drinking song (Disc 1 Ch.5 as they do later in the Soldiers’ Chorus (Disc 2 Ch.3).

The orchestral playing under Pappano's is variably paced with some rather fast tempi at times, but overall the dramatic portrayal is outstanding as is the contribution of the chorus, so important in this opera. The solo singing is more mixed but never less than good. Alagna as Faust is a little dry-toned at the start, but his idiomatic French is easy and fluent and his portrayal believable as an old stooped man regretting his lost youth, albeit in close-up his face could have been more lined (Disc 1 (Ch.1-2). His transformation into the ardent young virile Faust after Méphistophélès has shown him a vision of Marguerite is well managed and his skipping a cartwheel a bonus as to the wasted energy of youth (Chs.3-4). Alagna delivers an eloquently phrased Salut! Demeure chaste et pure, (Ch.14) which is rapturously received. As Marguerite, Angela Gheorghiu is rather too knowing in The King of Thule and somewhat over-avaricious as she surveyed the jewels (Chs. 16-17). Nonetheless her singing is fluent, pure-toned, eloquently phrased throughout and with a nice trill. Some of the best singing of the evening comes from Simon Keenlyside, in a consummately acted portrayal of Valentin, Marguerite's brother. His Avant de quitter (Ch.6) is smooth, full-bodied and rounded of tone; it is a major vocal highlight of the performance whilst his duet with Sophie Koch’s Siébel through to Valentin’s death (Disc 2 Chs.4-7) is a sung and acted highlight. The Méphistophélès of Bryn Terfel is, as one might expect of this Welshman of the theatre, a histrionic tour de force. His size, stage presence and flexibility of facial expression suit the part like a glove. His French is good and both Song of the Golden calf and Serenade (Disc 1 Ch.7 and disc 2 CH.5) are well phrased and expressive. However, in the ultimate analysis his sonorous bass-baritone, no matter how well he colours his tone, lacks the sheer heft that a full bass could give the part although on DVD his acting powers obscure that deficiency in some degree. His limitation is most evident, maybe not helped by his costume either, when Méphistophélès taunts Marguerite as she comes to pray and his demons dance around; the brief scene does not chill the spine or make the hairs stand up as it should (Disc 2 Chs.1-2).

McVicar is renowned as an innovative director and the production revels in a gothic, seamy Second French Empire setting. As with most modern producers there are seemingly illogical idiosyncrasies such as Siébel having a wooden leg and yet being required to push and ride a bicycle. Similarly, a bearded hairy-chested Terfel in drag is largely pointless; it would have been better if he had looked a little more like a traditional Old Nick at that point as he raises the spirits of hell for Walpurgis Night. As to this Mephisto’s attempt at a bit of nooky with Martha, I thought it was only others that Méphistophélès led into temptation in pursuit of their souls.

Although the booklet gives the essay in English and a brief synopsis in French and German as well as English, there are no mentions of the set or costume designers which I provide above. Likewise the lack of Chapter details in the booklet is a serious deficiency not obviated by the brief synopsis. These act details are as follows; Act 1, Disc 1 Chs. 1-4. Act 2, Chs.5-10. Act 3. Chs.11-23. The final two acts are on disc two with Act 4 on Chs. 1-7 and act 5 on Chs. 8-15.

Competition on DVD is sparse. Faust has fared badly in respect of reasonably modern versions with an acceptable cast. The VAI version recorded in Japan in 1973 has embedded Japanese subtitles that remain on screen. However, its cast of Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Renata Scotto would be difficult to match today (see review). The 1985 Vienna production by Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of English music films, is issued by DG. It features Bénackova’s vocally admired Marguerite, Ruggero Raimondi camping up Méphistophélès and Francisco Araiza in the title role (00440 073 4108).

Robert J Farr

It has been a long wait, but despite its idiosyncrasies this is as good a portrayal of Faust on DVD as one is likely to get.