Hell has no Limits

Erwin Schrott as Méphistophélès, photograph by Tristram Kenton

Hell has no Limits

Faust, opera in five acts, music by Charles-François Gounod, libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, conducted by Dan Ettinger, director David McVicar, 5th revival of the 2004 production, Royal Opera, Thursday 11th April 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

When Charles-François Gounod died in 1893, Faust had already been performed a thousand times. It is not hard to see why. Exquisitely orchestrated, with echoes of his protégé George Bizet’s Symphony in C (composed when the latter was only seventeen), there are compelling and beautiful arias, such as Salut! Demeure chaste et pure (Hail! Chaste and fair abode). Moreover, Faust addresses universal themes. “Who”, as one critic sagely remarked, “doesn’t long to be young again?” (lyricopera.org). Faust, a world-weary scholar, depicted by the American tenor Michael Fabiano as a doddering old man, feels that he has learnt nothing and has needlessly forgone opportunities for love. “Maudit soit le bonheur, maudites la science, la priere et la foi”, he exclaims (Cursed be happiness, science, prayer and faith). He damns everything that ties people to life – sex, youth, the beauty of nature and the thirst for knowledge.

In scene one, Faust is ready to take his own life. On cue, Méphistophélès appears, portrayed by Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott, suitably satanic and imposing. His was arguably the stand out performance, although Stéphane Degout, as Valentin, was very fine. Méphistophélès transforms Faust’s poisonous drink into the elixir of life, the archetypal concoction which confers eternal youth. The reinvigorated Faust is now imbued with what philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called the blind will to live. Indicatively, it is the bewitching vision of Marguerite, conjured up by Méphistophélès, which overcomes his qualms about handing over his soul. As Colin Jones trenchantly observes, “…Faust is a love story set within a struggle between good and evil, spirituality and carnal pleasures” (“Gounod’s Paris”, official programme). Gounod was himself an ardent Catholic.

The magical substance not only turns Faust into an elegant young gentleman. It also changes the plot into a rivalrous love triangle, for Faust must now compete with Siébel (played by cross-dressed Marta Fontanals-Simmons) for Marguerite’s affections. German soprano Mandy Fredrich, in the role of Marguerite, stood in at the last moment for the indisposed Irina Lungu. Technically, Fredrich is an excellent singer but she lacks the stage presence and charisma for such a demanding role.

Faust “…exudes a Parisian, Second Empire aura..” (Colin Jones, “Gounod’s Paris”, official programme). Music Director Antonio Pappano and Director of Opera Oliver Mears agree.  Faust, with its Gallic cynicism and “bitter realism…redolent of Zola”, is, as they say, “ …a concoction of the Second Empire”. Even Marguerite, for all her innocence and purity, has her price, to wit, a box of jewels, as Méphistophélès cunningly surmises. As for verismo, we have Faust shooting up on stage, simulated copulation and a heavily pregnant Marguerite seemingly having a miscarriage.

According to critic Philip Hensher, Tony Blair jettisoned his principles in return for power. Peter Mandelson was his Mephistopheles. We should have thought of that.

A scene from Faust, by Gounod @ Royal Opera House, photograph by Tristram Kenton

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR

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