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Gounod,Faust: Soloists, Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi. Coro de Ópera de Bilbao.Conductor: Rani Calderón.Palacio Euskalduna de Bilbao. 14.11.2009 (JMI) 

Production from the Théâtre Capitole de Toulouse.

Director: Nicolas Joel (Original).Gregory Voillemet (Revival)
Sets: Ezio Frigerio.
Costumes: Franca Squarciapino.
Lighting: Vinicio Cheli.


Faust: Piotr Beczala.

Marguerite: Eva Mei.

Mephistopheles: Laurent Naouri.

Valentin: Rodion Pogossov.

Siebel: Alexandra Rivas.

Marthe: Nadine Weissmann.

Wagner: Luis Cansino.

Picture © E. Moreno Esquibel

My father used to say: "Days of plenty, nights of famine" and I can hardly find a more appropriate expression to explain the contrast between of the last two operas from ABAO’s current season. From the riches of the recent Billy Budd we progress to the poverty of this Faust.


The combination of several negative factors ultimately explains one the most boring Faust productions I have ever seen but too little time in rehearsal and a few poor artistic choices in the commissioning are the most relevant factors contributing to this poor performance.

Just 12 days between the last performance of Billy Budd and the premiere of Faust was much too short an interval and in fact, the total time available before the dress rehearsal was a mere 9 days. The first unfortunate artistic decision was the choice of a Nicolas Joel production, a choice that perhaps explained the extraordinarily short rehearsal period, since it is absolutely static. I reviewed this production when it was premiered in Toulouse earlier this year and although the stage direction in Bilbao was handled by Gregory Voillemet there was no improvement at all. As it happens, not a single member of the creative team appeared in stage for the final bows. Who knows why?


The second important artistic mistake was ABAO’s choice of conductor, the Israeli Rani Calderón. I have no doubt that his is a promising young talent, but the circumstances surrounding this Faust were certainly not the best for a conductor without extensive experience of this opera. Mr Calderón gave us a flat and boring reading of the score, with some very erratic tempi, an example of which is the issue of timings listed in the programme. Assuming that these were based on the rehearsals, it is difficult to understand why the anticipated 90 minutes of the first half became 105, or why the predicted 85 minutes of the second half ultimately came in at 72. The Kermesse scene was an example of something that should never occur in an opera house; there was very little coordination between stage and pit - something that never would have happened with a more experienced conductor. And in these circumstances, one cannot but welcome the cutting of the whole of the ballet music.

The Orchestra was not on form either, far from the standard shown in their recent performance of Verdi’s Requiem. The Bilbao Chorus is also one of the best in Spain, but they need a conductor under whose baton they can feel secure which was by no means the case here. It’s a genuine mercy that the production was essentially static, as this allowed them to improve in Act IV.


The protagonist of the opera was the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who is now considered – and with very good reason - one of the most outstanding singers today. It would be difficult I think, to find a more appropriate vocal interpreter for Faust, and the audience clearly recognized this at once. Beczala’s voice is beautiful, very homogeneous, having strengthened significantly in the lower register, without having lost any of his top notes. Sadly though, having heard him in other theatres, I have to say that the special characteristics of the Euskalduna Palace did not help him much. Beczala had some sdifficulties in projecting his upper register here, something almost unnoticeable in other opera houses, but having said that, his performance was very good, since he adds an outstanding elegance to his undoubted vocal quality. He sang an excellent “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” crowned with a very bright high C.

The choice of Eva Mei as Marguerite was certainly not a mistake  but unfortunately her performance was still somewhat questionable because her interpretation felt boring and superficial. The biggest problem was that she sang her part – up to the prison scene - as if it were a private rehearsal. It is unacceptable to sing "Le Roi de Thulé" and the ‘Jewel Song’ as if warming up the voice and if there were people present who thought that this was because the voice was on on the small side, they must have realized during the last scene that this was not so. As it happens, her voice is not exactly huge and it could be a matter for discussion whether Marguerite is a natural role for her. It is also true that this was her debut in the role, but even that cannot justify her mostly muted singing.


The choice of Laurent Naouri as Mephistopheles seemed a more appropriate decision in terms of stage presence than it was in purely vocal terms. Naouri was an accomplished actor, who gave us quite a lively and funny devil. In vocal terms though, Mephistopheles needs a voice of larger amplitude and authority than he can offer. He was unable to achieve a sense of menacing evil in the Church scene and he suffered a lot with the tempos taken for “Le Veau d’or”. Neither this nor the Serenade received applause from the audience.


The role of Valentin can never save a production of Faust but neither can it sink it. It is obvious that no company invites great stars to play this character, just as it is clear that no star would want to sing it, given its secondary importance in the opera. The Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov was a good enough Valentin, not particularly bright however, and at his best in his final number.


Alexandra Rivas was an accomplished Siebel, singing both her aria in the third act and the Duet with Marguerite in Act IV, which is traditionally cut, with gusto. Nadine Weissmann was a quite remarkable Marthe Schwerlein.


There was a full house as is usual in Bilbao. The audience was distinctly cool, and there were cheers only after Beczala’s aria. At the final bows the triumph went to Mr Beczala and Laurent Naouri received warm applause but the rest of the cast and the conductor received nothing beyond courtesies. The odds are that if our local public was more passionate and less educated, we would have had some sonorous booing.

José M Irurzun



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