Charles Gounod, Faust
Rolling balls, daisies and sad clowns
“Rien” (nothing) reads the neon sign above a pile of sheets of paper watched over by black robotic crows. And it is also the first word sung by Faust, «Rien! […] Je ne vois rien! Je ne sais rien! Rien! Rien!» (Nothing! I see nothing! I know nothing! Nothing! Nothing!): knowledge does not give him the fulfillment he desired, and now he’s thinking of ending his life by poison, thus affirming that, in the end, he is the master of his destiny. Offstage voices stop him from killing himself and Faust launches an invective toward that god which cannot give him back youth and love. It is the right time for the entry of Mephistopheles, who can give him these things. Thus begins Faust by Gounod in its debut in Salzburg at the Grosses Festspielhaus with new staging by production designer Reinhard von der Thannen in his directing debut. He created the scenes for the Lohengrin in Bayreuth, the one with the rats, and here is the same white aseptic laboratory lit by fixed cold lights, this time populated by little doll houses on wheels, giant daisies, hospital beds, chairs on which other daisies grow, a huge skeleton without an arm (?), a gift bag with the corpse of Marguerite’s newborn child… Various images of Regietheater gimmicks that don’t even shock, unfortunately, and in the end the “cute” show gets its share of applause.
The librettists Barbier and Carré had made a clean sweep of the philosophical implications of Goethe’s text, transforming the story into a mundane love story in grand-opera style, but other renditions have found deeper meaning in this Second Empire-style Faust. Without a basic idea, disappointing moments alternate: the transformation of Faust into a young lad (elsewhere realized with more theatrical taste), the mournful waltz, the Walpurgis night with depressed clowns rolling black balls… In the director’s intentions, the mythical story is turned into a children’s game or a sad tale.
The trivial choreographic movements by Giorgio Madia are entrusted to the choir with embarrassing results: in the scene of the soldiers of the fourth act, all sixty members of the male choir are on the proscenium as unwilling and awkward chorus girls of a sad vaudeville show. Vocally, they’re bleak: instead of the semi-improvised Philharmonia Choir, it would have been better to cast the Vienna Opera Choir for a work in which the choral part is so important.
Piotr Beczala’s Faust is vocally generous and bold. He has good breath control and great vocal security, but the volume of the voice never changes and French pronunciation is stilted. The Polish tenor leaves all the mezza voce to the Italian singer Maria Agresta, who sketches a Marguerite of great sensitivity whose resolve wavers only at the signt of an irresistible scarf shimmering with crystals – the Swarovski headquarters are not far from Salzburg…
Gounod’s Mephistopheles is different from Boito’s: whereas there Il’dar Abdrazakov was more effective, here his voice is sometimes veiled. From a scenic standpoint, we can admire the efforts of the Russian bass to liven up the atmosphere, but everything in this production is icy cold.
Despite the fake beard, neither the physique du rôle nor the terrible costume can be admired in the Siebel of Tara Erraught, for whom the second aria of the fourth act was restored. Alexej Markov’s Valentin is excellently performed; vocally an impressive baritone, after being stabbed several times by both Mephistopheles and Faust, he remains on his feet for a good fifteen minutes cursing his sister before he dies. Marie-Ange Todorovitch is the only French singer in the cast and her Marthe has a warm mezzo-soprano timbre and a vivid presence.
The Argentinian Alejo Pérez at the head of the Vienna Philharmonic is attentive to the dynamics, but without those passionate outbursts which make grand-opera enjoyable: the final duo of Faust and Marguerite never takes off and other points in the opera fall flat.
In the last scene of Marguerite’s death and redemption, once again we see the “Rien” sign, a clear seal to this production lacking in ideas.
(Many thanks to Gail McDowell for the revision)