Mephistopheles’ Merry Moments

It takes a lot of work to mount a good Faust, Charles Gounod’s 1859 operatic behemoth. There is the issue of staging what in many ways is close to impossible to put on stage and keep a straight face. There’s the instant transformation of Faust, the old scholar into Faust, the dashing young man. There are other hurdles: decisions to be made, what to keep, what to cut… And most important: a good quartet of singers must be employed – ideally four artists with acting chops, big voices, and style by spades. French opera does not sit well in all voices, and good French diction is hard to come by in non-Gallic singers. In the Royal Opera House Opus Arte DVD the cast only partially rises to the occasion.

Michael Fabiano provides a pleasant alterative to the choice of either a big bellower (no names need be mentioned) or a bleating light weight. He is neither. Fabiano, a fast rising big-voiced lyric tenor with Spinto possibilities is well chosen for the title role of Gounod’s opera. He is an intelligent singer with a lovely sound, a secure top, and excellent technique. He phrases well and  acts the part with conviction.

In the key role of Mephistopheles, the Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott has a strange take on the role of the demon who makes a pact with Faust. Perhaps hand  in hand with the stage director David McVicar, the singer has a disconcertingly jokey approach to the part that makes light of moments in which the demonic should outweigh any hint of humor. Vocally Schrott is alright, although more baritone than bass and hence lacking the dark color the role demands at several key moments.

Soprano Iirina Lungu is a lovely Marguerite who manages to pull off the Ballad of the King of Thulé and the following Jewel Song with not a whit of help from her stage director. Mezzo-soprano Marta Fontana-Simmons sings beautifully and acts a convincingly boyish Siebel.

The French baritone Stephane Degout is flawless as Valentin, cutting a handsome soldierly figure and singing up a storm in his Avant de quitter, in the Duel Trio and in his Death Scene.

Sadly, it is the staging of David McVicar that ultimately proves to be the major disappointment by resorting to corny tricks when sensible solutions are best used. He equips the Mephistopheles with a bag of tricks that eventually grows irksome: a group of hangers on that indulge in silly choreography with gyrating bodies on the floor, multiple and often ridiculous costume changes, and attitudinizing substituting for acting.

Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger leads his cast, orchestra and chorus with an even mix of flexibility and assured leadership.

Rafael de Acha             All About the Arts