Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) Faust, grand opera in five acts (1856/59) [168.36]
Faust – Charles Castronovo (tenor)
Marguerite – Irina Lungu (soprano)
Mephistopheles – Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)
Valentin – Vasilij Ladjuk (baritone)
Siébel – Ketevan Kemoklidze (mezzo-soprano)
Marthe – Samantha Korbey (mezzo-soprano)
Wagner – Paolo Maria Orecchia (baritone)
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Regio di Torino/Gianandrea Noseda
Stage Director, Choreographer, Set, Costume and Lighting Designer – Stefano Poda
Assistant Stage Director – Paolo Ciani Cei
Video Director – Tiziano Mancini
Recorded live 7 & 9 June 2015 Teatro Regio Torino, Italy
Filmed in High Definition – Mastered from a HD source
Picture format: 1080i – 16:9
a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit
b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz
Subtitles in French (original language), German, English, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese C MAJOR 735204 Blu-ray [179.50]
“It may well be regarded as the inauguration of a new era in French opera.”
Richard Alexander Streatfield on Gounod’s Faust.
Newly released on the C Major label is director Stefano Poda’s 2015 live production of Gounod’s Faust from the Teatro Regio Torino.
Some background to the Faust opera might prove useful. Gounod wrote twelve operas between 1851/81 and Faust was the composer’s fourth opera taking him almost three years to write. Gounod used a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré which combines the first part of Goethe’s dramatic poem Faust, in the French translation by Gérard de Nerval, with a contribution from Michel Carré’s own adaptation Faust et Marguerite
The hero of the traditional German folk-tale the academic Doctor Faust a philosopher and alchemist makes a pact with the devil Mephistopheles (Mephisto) in exchange for superhuman knowledge, regaining his youth and power. Faust has a brief relationship with Marguerite a young maiden and soon abandons her. Marguerite becomes pregnant by Faust and has a child who she kills. Whilst in prison awaiting the hangman Marguerite rejects the offer of escape from Faust and Mephisto and turns over her spirit to heaven before dying.
Gounod’s Faust was premièred at the Théâtre-Lyrique, Paris in 1859. In 1868/69 for its new production at the Paris Opéra, Gounod made revisions including adding ballet music to the score. Gounod’s Faust rapidly achieved international distinction and for more than half a century after its première it was probably the most popular opera in the repertoire. For opera lovers its elevated status, with the exception of temporary changes in vogue, has endured. Gounod’s Faust was in fact the opera selected for the inauguration of the New York Metropolitan Opera House in 1883. Evidently its high frequency of production there led to the frivolous idea by the New York music critic William James Henderson that the Metropolitan Opera House should be renamed the “Faustspielhaus.”
For this 2015 live production of Faust from Turin stage director Stefano Poda also takes on the roles as choreographer, set, costume and lighting designer. Poda’s approach allows him to “search for aesthetic and conceptual unity.” Poda’s mis-en-scène is a cerebral one, rather complex, futuristic looking and high on symbolism. I’m not sure if Poda has provided a directorial note explaining the symbolisms but without they are not always easy to unravel. It comes as no surprise that Poda takes a markedly individual approach to his production featuring a giant dark coloured ring which dominates the stage within walls designed to look like roughly hewn blocks of stone all seen in frequently shifting lighting.
According to Poda the significance of the ring is intended to mean different things to different people. Poda explains “it is the circle that closes the experience of life, the contemplation chasing the action, and vice versa, the ground chasing the sky and everything turns to dust, is a sign of the covenant between God and Man.” Located on a revolve the ring can lie flat or tilt and pivot up to a maximum angle of 90°. From the centre of the revolve and outside its circumference, described as a ‘magic circle’, are a number of segments inscribed with Goethe text and the biblical text Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas (Vanity of vanities, all is vanity). Surely a constant reminder of man’s mortality hourglasses are positioned evenly on the edge of the revolve and at times held in the hands of the main performers.
Under the ring is an untidy pile of hardback books. There are two petrified tree branches fixed to the underside of the ring and on the floor a spray of flowers and a globe inscribed with text. Poda’s main colour scheme is black, white and red and sticking in the memory are the vivid crimson costumes of satin and velvet worn by the chorus; suits for the men with wide hats, pencil skirt suits with heels for the women and leather gloves for all. Later the women wear their pencil skirt suits in white with black details. At the time of the scene of Golden Calf (Le veau d'or) a number of the male chorus carry calf skulls that look creepy in a crimson colour. During Mephisto’s Serenade he fondles a line-up of smartly dressed women each with a balloon up the front of their dress as if pregnant which is subsequently popped by pins. Prior to the famous Jewel Song the jewels are found in a travel bag and a trunk with drawers both made of crimson leather. For the memorably robust Soldiers' Chorus the returning troops are wearing greatcoats and crowns of thorns making a most thought provoking scene. An alteration by Poda is the fatal act four sword fight with the protagonists now using pistols instead. Disappointingly the waltz scene includes curious coordinated hand and finger gestures and when lined-up rowing motions with interlinked arms and bodies. Far more successful is the Walpurgis Night's lascivious ballet scene with brown mud coloured men and women dancers wearing only g-strings who dance and frolic vigorously around the stage to long held audience approval. Emphasising her struggle in act five Marguerite is caught up in ropes suspended from the elevated ring to the floor. In the final scene a large crucifix is positioned inside the giant ring then Marguerite dies with a blinding light and is resurrected and ascends to heaven.
In the title role Charles Castronovo does all that is required of him without especially excelling. Faust is a philosopher and alchemist and Castronovo’s portrayal is rather nondescript and I feel I know as little about Faust now as I did at the start. In comparison Piotr Beczala’s recent Faust provided an abundance of characterisation in Reinhard von der Thannen’s 2016 Salzburg production. Nevertheless the bearded American tenor sings well and in particular his act three cavatina Salut, demeure chaste et pure giving a lovely, engaging performance.
Russian soprano Irina Lungu makes a suitably demure maiden Marguerite dressed mainly in a white dress although at other times in a coat adorned with flowers and jewels. Her demanding scene in act three which includes the celebrated Ah! je ris
(Jewel Song) is competently done. Although affecting at times and attractive in timbre Lungu doesn’t have the biggest voice and there are some challenges with breath control. Faust’s love duet with Marguerite Oui, c'est toi que j'aime is especially well performed conveying blissful happiness.
Ildar Abdrazakov is made for the role of Mephistopheles (Mephisto) displaying superb acting which generates evil intent at every opportunity. The Russian bass demonstrates an innate sense of authority and dark resonant tones which he projects powerfully and vividly. Exceedingly macho in the role Abdrazakov takes every opportunity to reveal his bare chest. Mephisto’s famous aria Le veau d'or est vainqueur des dieux (the Song of theGolden Calf) is marvellously performed with suitable contemptuous tirade and is a real highlight.
Baritone Vasilij Ladjuk takes the role of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother. In Valentin’s farewell aria from act two Avant de quitter ces lieux, asking God to take care of his sister as he goes off to war, the baritone delivers a proud and meaningful performance. One senses that Ladjuk seems less comfortable in his lower register.
Delightful in the trouser role of Siebel is mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze as she skilfully demonstrates in prowess in her arias Faites-lui mes aveux and Si le bonheur.
In the minor roles Samantha Korbey as Marthe and Paolo Maria Orecchia playing Wagner give extremely capable performances.
Noseda conducts the Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio Torino with his usual committed approach and they respond with performances that are lucid, buoyant and expressive. Striking in act four is the exquisite entrance of the organ in the Church Scene to augment the chorus and orchestra which adds positively to the emotion of Marguerite confronting her demons. Especially enjoyable in act five is the chorus and orchestra on Walpurgis Night evoking the fantasy world of spirits, elves and fairies reminding me of a Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night’s Dream for adults.
Recorded live in 2015 at Teatro Regio Torino the HD picture quality is excellent although the lighting direction for much of the time tends to favour a dark and twilight aspect to the set. With the choice of stereo, and 5.1 surround sound options, satisfying is the sound quality which I find clear and well balanced. The booklet has an essay ‘Gounod’s Faust from Turin’ by Mark Pappenheim and a detailed track listing but surprisingly no synopsis is provided. On screen there are no bonus features available, only advertising for the label’s other operas. Interviews with the director Poda and a cast member or two would have been extremely beneficial. I was interested to see at the end of the production, with the cast taking its bow to significant audience applause, that Poda brings his fifty or so large team onto the stage.
Unless one is steadfastly loyal to a traditionally staged Faust this imaginative and insightful Stefano Poda production at Teatro Regio Turino makes spectacular entertainment.