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Georges Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust - Opera in Five Acts (1859)
Faust – Michael Fabiano (tenor)
Méphistophélès – Erwin Schrott (bass-baritone)
Valentin – Stephane Dégout (baritone)
Marguerite – Irina Lungu (soprano)
Siébel – Marta Fontanals-Simmons (soprano)
Marthe – Carole Wilson (mezzo)
Wagner – German E. Alcantara (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Dan Ettinger
Director: David McVicar
Sets: Charles Edwards
Costumes: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
rec. 18 and 30 April 2019
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
Subtitles in French (sung language), English, German, Japanese and Korean
OPUS ARTE OA1330D DVD [2 discs: 184 mins]

Gounod’s Faust is, or used to be, an old operatic warhorse, yet it had passed me by until this DVD came along for review. The story, of the old scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth and all his desires on earth, goes back to the sixteenth century. In English, the classic version is the 1592 one by Christopher Marlowe. In German the classic version is that by Goethe, in two parts, 1806 and 1831. This has approximately the same place in German culture which Hamlet holds in English. The first part, which deals with the tragedy of Gretchen, is occasionally performed on stage; the second part, which is much longer and more philosophical, is really a closet drama. The poet Nerval translated the first part into French, but the basis for Gounod’s opera was a play, loosely based on Goethe’s first part, by Michel Carré, called Faust et Marguerite (the French equivalent of Gretchen). Carré and Jules Barbier wrote the libretto for Gounod. This sacrifices the literary and philosophical depth of the Goethe for an exciting drama, even though the theology of it is absurd. Under the guidance of Méphistophélès, Faust is rejuvenated, seduces and abandons Marguerite, then feels remorse. She has killed her baby and is sentenced to death but is saved by a heavenly voice at the end. Faust is a cad, Méphistophélès a stage villain and Marguerite an innocent dupe.

This is a film of a live production, recorded over two nights in 2019. It is in fact the second film of this production, which dates from 2004; the earlier version had a different cast and conductor. The production, by David McVicar, is very striking. I don’t know when the practice began of setting operas in the period of their composition rather than the period intended by the composer and librettist; I have never seen an explanation or defence of this practice and it has had some deplorable results: I think of a Mathis der Maler with guns and televisions and of Salomé in a Victorian public bath. Here we have Second Empire Paris. I have to admit that it looks sumptuous and, given that the work is of no great depth, I find it acceptable. There are still some oddities: the set at the opening, which supposedly represents Faust’s study, has stage boxes on the left and a church organ on the right. And in one scene a modern bicycle is produced (why not a penny farthing, you may ask). Still, the good features outweigh the bad, and among them are most of the costumes, though Marguerite is far too grandly dressed in her earlier scenes and Méphistophélès, who wears a different costume in each scene, is required to wear drag in the Walpurgis Night scene, which is ridiculous and destroys the tension.

Despite this, it is the Méphistophélès of Erwin Schrott which dominates the proceedings. He is splendidly sardonic and manipulative and the way he leads the crowd in Le veau d’or is as splendid a piece of acting and singing as you can imagine. In comparison, Michael Fabiano’s Faust is comparatively colourless, though he is good as the elderly scholar – for some reason he returns to his old age at the end – and he rises to the occasion in the love duet in the prison scene at the end. Irina Lungu replaced an injured Diana Damrau as Marguerite and seemed to me to take her time in getting into the role. Her contemplation of the jewels seemed more acquisitive than wondering, but after her pregnancy and disgrace, and in a more appropriate costume, she is really touching. The Valentin of Stéphane Degout has been much praised, but I found his delivery stentorian and unvarying. The Siébel of Marta Fontanals-Simmons, a breeches role, was charming. The chorus was quite superb, both in their drinking song and in the chorus Gloire immortelle, which has one of those tunes which everyone knows. The crowd scenes are enthusiastically done, with numerous extras, such as children and acrobats (who double as devils, when needed). The ballet begins elegantly and ends nastily, but you can expect a modern production to inject some gratuitous sex and violence somewhere. Dan Ettinger conducts with more vigour than subtlety, but, as this is not a subtle piece, that was acceptable.

The sound and vision are both excellent, with no problems arising from filming live performances. The booklet has an essay on the reception of the work and there are subtitles in five languages. There are also a few extras on the second disc, interviews and so on. In terms of the competition, the earlier film of the same production has a very starry cast (review). There are several others and there is a survey of audio versions here. Despite the occasional oddities I enjoyed this performance and was glad to get to know the work.

Stephen Barber

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