Faust - Opera Review

Rating: 5

By Margaret Bemand

I was slightly dreading reviewing Charles-François Gounod’s Faust. Though it has terrific tunes and wonderful music, it has two big downsides. The first is that it’s all high Victorian gothic melodrama and the second is that it is goes on and on. People have spoken highly of this production, but even so…

From the moment the band struck up I realised I had misjudged it. As the orchestra works through the overture, a delivishly good-looking Méphistophélès (Erwin Schrott) appears on the sumptuous stage, fighting a metaphorical battle with the church. By the time Faust (Michael Fabiano) makes his entrance, walking shakily on a stick, the audience is won over – they know they’re in for a very good time. There are demonic dancers and acrobatics, brilliant costumes, there’s a fin de siècle Parisian cabaret scene, complete with a rendition of the can-can; the two main characters seem to have a riot on stage and the rest of the cast join in. They act and ham and dance their way through the hours. 

There are plenty of serious themes running through the plot – the fight between good and evil, the balance of life and death – and there are deeply uncomfortable scenes (Walpurgis night, for instance: the 19th century was not kind to women), but there isn’t a dull moment in the evening.

The production is gorgeous, but so is the music. ‘It’s lollipop after lollipop,’ the gentleman in the seat next to me commented. It’s lyrical, easy-to-engage-with stuff and it’s performed spectacularly well. Erwin Schrott’s chocolatey baritone makes the Devil an extremely beguiling prospect and Michael Fabiano, who has some seriously demanding arias to get through, absolutely shone. Mention should also go to the gorgeous voice – and acting – of Stéphane Degout who sings the role of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother. Which brings me to the role of Marguerite herself, who should have been sung by the Russian soprano Irina Lungu, but she was unable to perform due to illness. German soprano Mandy Fredrich stepped in at the last minute – landing in the UK at 4.30pm for a 7pm start on the first night – and gave the performance of her life.  She has sung this role for the Vienna State Opera so the musical performance may be predictable, but she has never performed at the Royal Opera House before, and though this whole production is highly choreographed and she appeared to step into it seamlessly. Brava! 

David McVicar’s brilliant staging is not a new production, but I urge anyone who might be nervous of the old brow-clutching melodramatic operatic stereotypes to give it a go. It’s a blast, a feel-good rollercoaster. You’ll leave the House smiling and the tunes will probably stay with you till you’re home. 

Sung in French with English subtitles. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, WC2E 9DD; 15, 18, 25, 30 April and 3, 6 May: 020-7304 4000, www.roh.org.uk