This was, quite simply, one of the most fabulous evenings I’ve ever had in any opera house (and yes, that includes Die Valkyrie at the Met). The Royal Opera House smashed the ball out of the park with Gounod’s Faust – which is of course one of those rare but stunning occasions when a basically second-rank composer is suddenly torched by immortal fire and becomes – albeit briefly – a first-rank one.
The orchestra under Dan Ettinger was exemplary, with particular stars being the leader (luscious violin solo!), woodwinds and cello/bass sections. Ettinger understood precisely how to conjure up the right amount of rubato, without ever quite overdoing it. There was total commitment from pit and chorus – the soft precision of the chorus’ last section was spine-tingling.
So often the production lets the ROH down, but here, it was pitch-perfect. (Yes, some people objected to the Hieronymus Bosch-like, black-lipped and fallen ballerinas, but, in context: inspired!) The settings were evocative, the lighting (from Marguerite’s first appearance, in shadow onwards) perfection, the costumes – even the mad ones, such as Méphistophélès in drag – all worked, and the hours – it was long, started at seven, finished half-ten – flew by. The idea of having Méphistophélès begin as part of the statuary was marvellous, though I couldn’t see the point of the angel welcoming Marguerite to heaven sporting both wings and a bowler hat, by that point I was not going to moan about it. Special kudos to the unnervingly brilliant dancers, who menaced and gambolled just enough to embellish the (few, very few) duller bits.
And where do I start with the cast? Germán E Alcántara impressed as Wagner, while Carole Wilson as Marthe Schwertlein revelled in her role as widowed neighbour, both vocally and in terms of characterisation. There was lovely work from Hongni Wu as Marguerite’s admirer Siébel, and from Stéphene Degout as her brother Valentin (who snags one of the best arias, the moment he shows up). Wu’s voice has a steely sweetness that projects perfectly, and a crystaline technique. Degout’s voice is effortlessly glowing, and he had a good deal of acting and fighting to get his head around, as well.
As for the major roles, it is hard to imagine a better-toned or more resonant Faust than Michael Fabiano, on superb form, or one more convincing as a bitter old man. Irina Lungu could have let loose more in the Jewel Song but – with every semiquaver duly nailed, she afterwards inhabited the role and, in the very last section, out-shone even Schrott and Fabiano in terms of both power and beauty of tone.
As for Erwin Schrott, well, the devil famously gets the best tunes, and when the devil possesses, as Schrott does, panache and artistic judgement united with a voice of velvety, insinuating variety and power, not to mention sufficient pizzazz to carry off being dressed up in drag, and a devouringly menacing charm: basically, he owns the stage.
Schrott has charisma by the bucketload – I have never before observed an opera star successfully flirt with an audience of thousands – but it is critical not to lose sight of the actual voice. His is clean from top to bottom, and can produce an edge, soften it, and then insert a touch of steel, and all within a single phrase. I want to hear his Don Giovanni, his Count, his Boris Godunov, his Germont. Having said that, I would happily sign up to hear a voice of this calibre practising scales.
Unluckily, I caught the very last performance. However, it is to be relayed in cinemas all over the country. Go, is my advice – and buy the DVD when it appears. This production was a triumph: for Gounod, for the Royal Opera House and for everyone involved.
Copyright © 9 May 2019