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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust (1859)
Michael Fabiano (tenor) – Faust; Irina Lungu (soprano) – Marguerite; Erwin Schrott (bass) – Mephistopheles; German Alcantara (bass) – Wagner; Stéphane Degout (baritone) – Valentin; Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano) – Siebel; Carole Wilson (mezzo-soprano) – Martha
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Dan Ettinger
rec. Royal Opera, Covent Garden, 18 and 30 April 2019
Why the Royal Opera love performing Faust: Erwin Scrott and Dan Ettinger discuss the role of Mephistopheles
OPUS ARTE OABD7285D Blu-Ray [186 mins]

In the past decade it has become practically mandatory that every new production at a major opera house (and quite a few not-so-major ones) will become quickly available on video streaming, DVD or Blu-Ray. In the case of many of these productions, no matter how quirky or objectionable they may be, such a recording does perform a valuable service in keeping a documentary record of an event that might well otherwise be lost for ever. One thinks with forlorn regret of the many superb performances and productions of the past that one would love to see – or to see again – and which are no longer available. This does not excuse however the wilful deletion of many of these video productions, often filmed at great expense, which constitute a now vast array of unavailable material; I can hardly begin to rehearse the many items now only available second hand at vastly inflated prices, grossly inferior copies, or both.

Such a fate seems to have befallen the 2010 DVD recording, originally on EMI and latterly on Warner Classics, of the 2004 Royal Opera Covent Garden production of Gounod’s Faust. This is no longer listed as currently available from the manufacturer, although copies appear to continue to be available at reasonable prices from other suppliers. Nonetheless the Royal Opera has now proceeded to fill the gap by furnishing us with a new recording of the self-same production made fifteen years later. Indeed, on first acquaintance it seems far from clear that this is the same production. My copy of the EMI DVD makes no reference whatsoever to the production team involved, simply noting that the production was undertaken jointly with three other European opera houses. The new Blu-Ray, while making no mention of any such sharing of costs, credits the production to David McVicar, although the responsibility for this revival appears to have fallen to Bruno Ravella (who appears in one of the supplementary mini-documentaries). Viewing the two issues, however, leaves no doubt that we are seeing substantially the same production with only marginal revisions – the devils who support Mephistopheles during the church scene, for example, torment Marguerite more actively in 2019 than they did in 2004.

Although the production does take some liberties with the period and presentation of the drama – the whole action is updated to the period of the opera’s composition during the French Second Empire of Napoleon III – much of it is true to the spirit and indeed the letter of the score, even down to such details as the feather in Mephistopheles’ hat to which he refers at his first appearance. There is only one point at which I detected a jarring note, when Mephistopheles turns up to host his Walpurgis Night celebrations in drag, wearing a sumptuous deep purple evening gown which manages at the same time to look grotesque and hilarious but never for a moment believable. Otherwise, essential elements in the story – the transformation of Faust from old man to youth (and, in this production, back again at the end), the treacherous treatment of Valentin, the slowly calculated seduction of Marguerite, are all managed with considerable credibility and dramatic panache. Given the fact that the older recording has been withdrawn, it is all to the good that Covent Garden have made it this production available once again.

It is, moreover, excellently performed. The three principal artists are clearly closely engaged with the dramatic details of their renditions (as they make clear in the brief extra documentary) and believe in the score itself, not just treating it as an excuse for some gorgeous singing. All of them, moreover have well-tuned and pleasing voices. Michael Fabiano manages his transition from a convincingly decrepit old age to young stallion with aplomb, and makes a suitably lusty Faust with plenty of lyrical warmth if without the power that one recalls from singers of an earlier generation such as Domingo and Corelli (and his French is much better than Corelli’s, too). Erwin Schrott as Mephistopheles deliberately plays up the comic aspects of his role, and lacks the sheer sepulchral power of Christoff or Ghiaurov; but he holds his own by sheer force of personality. Irina Lungu as Marguerite clearly finds her work cut out in the more strenuously elaborate coloratura passages that Gounod so inconsiderately wrote for a role that otherwise is clearly designed for a lyric soprano; but she manages the climaxes with aplomb and her death scene is very affecting. The Blu-Ray picture quality is also a major asset, enabling us to see precisely what is happening at the end, with Mephistopheles consigned to hell, in a manner that was less clear in the older video.

And yet, and yet…when I go back to the earlier 2004 DVD of this same production, I suddenly find myself in a different league altogether. There we have a cast who are not just good singers doing their very best, but three stellar artists all of whom are singing roles for which they might have been designed by nature. Robert Alagna was always at his best in the romantic French roles, and his Faust has just the plangent tones that Gounod clearly envisaged with never the slightest suspicion of stress or strain. Bryn Terfel, towering over him by a head, needs no truck with humorous byplay to reinforce the sense of satanic menace which he so effortlessly conveys; and, in any event, should the devil appear to be nonchalant at all times? And Angela Gheorgiu in the final trio triumphantly throws off the bonds of mortality to embrace heavenly salvation with a ringing sense of conviction that lies just outside Lungu’s capacity. She also throws herself more wholeheartedly into her torments of conscience during the church scene. In terms of sheer dramatic frisson – and I made a number of direct side-by-side comparisons of the two performances – the 2004 cast wins hands down. Even Sir Bryn in his drag act as Mephistopheles, complete with facial hair, is more convincingly sardonic than his more rubicund rival. Equally the smoothly vocalised Stéphane Degout finds himself faced with overwhelming competition from Simon Keenlyside in 2004. The conducting honours are more evenly shared – both Dan Ettinger and Sir Antonio Pappano obtain superb playing from the orchestra, and the choral singing at Covent Garden remains one of the house’s strengths. In an opera bedevilled with alternative versions of the text, the edition adopted – both in 2004 and 2019 – is the largely traditional one, with Marguerite’s Il ne revient pas and Siebel’s Si la bonheur, both re-introduced in some modern revivals, omitted.

If I did not have the 2010 EMI DVD, I would certainly find this new Opus Arte presentation of David McVicar’s production most attractive; and I would also certainly enjoy hearing this cast in live performances in the opera house, or if I could not find or obtain a copy of the earlier recording. But the best is the enemy of the good and, as long as copies of the older recording remain available at reasonable prices, I would have to recommend them over this new version. Either way the Covent Garden production itself is very good, and well worthy of a second outing on disc. It is certainly to be preferred to the more outrageous rival stagings available, or the more primitive sound of two older (indeed, near-vintage) recordings featuring Alfredo Kraus. Both Covent Garden sets, from EMI and Opus Arte, come with stimulating and rewarding essays by Patrick O’Connor and Cormac Newark, but neither of the booklets include track listings; the EMI booklet also contains notes in French and German. Subtitles are supplied as expected in French, German and English; the EMI disc also gives us Italian and Spanish, while Opus Arte substitute Korean and Japanese.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review (DVD): Stephen Barber

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