Opera Australia: Faust review [Melbourne 2019]

In a production as spectacularly staged as it is intelligently conceived, Faust is another mighty achievement from Opera Australia, demonstrating the full extent of their resources to sterling effect.

On a scale comparable to 2018’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the production follows Così fan tutte as the second Melbourne production by Sir David McVicar this year. McVicar’s name certainly stands as a guarantee of grandeur and ingenuity on the opera stage; his productions shine new light on great works while showing great respect to the composers’ and librettists’ original intentions.

Opera Australia scored great success with this production of Faust in Sydney in 2015. In bringing the work to Melbourne’s State Theatre, the company cannot help but ignite the memory of long term operagoers who will recall the extraordinary Victoria State Opera production of Faust. Directed by UK artist Ian Judge, the 1990 production memorably starred Australian soprano Deborah Riedel, New Zealand tenor Patrick Power and Russian bass Barseg Tunyaman.

McVicar updates Faust to a decade or so after the opera’s 1859 premiere. The highly theatrical work has a “backstage” feel, with Méphistophélès able to access a range of costumes to allow him to smoothly join the action of each scene. Charles’ Edward’s grand design is collage-like representation of Parisian elements: a box at Paris Opéra, the organ from Notre-Dame and a Pigalle cabaret venue sit alongside grand stone arches and a curved cobblestone street. The vast State Theatre stage has rarely been filled so grandly.

But all the spectacle is not just there for its own sake. McVicar crafts an intoxicating tale of humanity, with lust and greed seeking dominance over nobility and purity, despite the devilish consequences. The night begins with a deliberately slow pace, as Doctor Faust is seen tottering and self-pitying in his decrepit old age. Summoned from the underworld, Méphistophélès grants Faust a magical onstage transformation back to the handsome virility of youth. Via a military street parade and the glamour of the Cabaret L’Enfer, the pair come to fair Marguerite’s abode, seducing the modest young woman with glittering jewels and ardent affection.

A key decision in McVicar’s production is the inclusion of the act five ballet, seen here as a work resembling Giselle on a stage in front of an auditorium representing Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where this production of Faust premiered in 2004. Performed by dancers in bare feet, the “ballet” takes on a decidedly nightmarish feel, with the prima ballerina, in ragged, dirty tutu, mocked and shunned by the corps. Men seen cheering from the box transform into onstage dancers for an orgiastic climax that ends with the horror of a tiny coffin.

Costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel complements Edward’s design with a dark palette, the only colours being blood red, plum and purple. Reiffenstuel picks up on the backstage feel by providing Méphistophélès and his coterie of succubi and incubi with costumes that look to have come from a variety of lavish stage productions.

Paule Constable’s lighting design is also integral to the overall stage spectacle, further enhancing the grandeur of the large scale sets and pinpointing lead singers with a glow of light amidst the atmospherically eerie gloom.

Masterful maestro Guillaume Tourniaire brings abundant specific expertise to Faust. With the State Theatre orchestra pit in its larger arrangement, Tourniaire leads Orchestra Victoria in a glorious performance. With a running time of 200 minutes that includes just one interval, the orchestra works tirelessly to create beautiful music. Special mention to the beautiful playing of clarinetist Justin Beere in a number of exquisite solo passages.

Choral singing is also at a premium, providing a wonderfully immersive highlight in the final act.

Working with Tourniaire and the music team at Opera Australia, revival director Bruno Ravella has brought out the very best in the lead cast, which sees a pleasing mix of two international singers alongside an excellent set of local artists.

Star Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu is in top form as Faust. Singing with bright romantic tone, Pirgu’s charm outshines the lustful machinations of the man, bringing the audience to see Faust as more of a traditional operatic hero. Displaying well considered control and abundant expression. Pirgu’s lovely rendition of act three cavatina “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” is a musical highlight of the evening.

Born in Kazakhstan to parents of Russian descent, soprano Maria Mudryak is a wonderful discovery as Marguerite. In a highly auspicious Opera Australia debut, Mudryak sings with luscious golden tone, generating full audience sympathy for the gentle soul of Marguerite. Warming up with “Il était un roi de Thulé,” Mudryak really blossoms with Marguerite’s Jewel Song (“Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir”). Her stunning performance in the all too brief final trio leaves a lasting impression of the high quality of Mudryak’s work.

The role of Méphistophélès is a strong fit for bass baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, and he returns to the role with equal success to that achieved in Sydney 2015. Sporting a variety of incredible costumes, Rhodes maintains a malevolent presence, made all the more sinister with the occasional twinkle of amusement. Rhodes’ rich bass pours forth with power, his unflinching gaze ensuring that the devil sees all.

As noble Valentin, protective brother of Marguerite, baritone Luke Gabbedy gives what is arguably his strongest performance to date. Impressing mightily in act two aria “O sainte médaille … Avant de quitter ces lieux,” Gabbedy really hits his zenith in Valentin’s tragic death scene.

Anna Dowsley delights as love-struck youth Siébel. Dominica Matthews proves that there are no small roles, making a memorable impression as “overripe” matron Marthe.

Faust is opera as an Event. Attendance is very highly recommended.

Faust plays select dates at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 7 December 2019.

Opening night of Faust was dedicated to the memory of John Wegner.

Photos: Jeff Busby

5 replies »

  1. Hi. Thank you for the lovely review, I’m glad you enjoyed Orchestra Victoria’s performance. Orchestra Victoria is blessed to have two gifted clarinetists and in Faust the principal clarinet with all those stunning solos is being performed by Justin Beere. Thanks again and see you from the pit again soon.

  2. For me the greatest elements in this performance were the beautiful solo violinist accompanying Salut Demere Chaste et Pure and the Corp de ballet – which I usually don’t appreciate much. The dancers were full of energy, precision and were always entertaining! What’s going on with Teddy’s (car won’t start) vibrato? Is this the ‘normal’ opera standard of bass singing these days? The 3 AO singers performing Siebel, Valentine and Marthe produced well acted/produced sounds which carried easily over the orchestra. Salmir Pirgu was great in the last 2 acts but kept the lid on his voice during the 1st half of the opera. Soprano Maria Mudryak was similar to SP yet never quite gave her heart to the role and was frequently drowned out by the orchestra in her low notes. I think I might have sabotaged my appreciation somewhat by listening to recordings of Boris Christoff, Maria Callas and Yussi Bjorling in these lead roles.

  3. My companion – not an opera lover but for some reason wanted to see Faust – was enchanted.

    And she was surprised and delighted by the ballets (as I was).

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