A starry Faust at Covent Garden

We were going to be in London for the Easter weekend and I had seen  the extraordinary cast (Netrebko, Calleja, Terfel, Keenlyside) which the Royal Opera House had announced for the revival of David McVicar’s Faust. So, though I do not go often to starry nights at Covent Garden, this seemed the right occasion to dig deep in my pocket. I did so, to the tune of £396 for two seats at the rear of the Balcony. The prospect altered somewhat when, some weeks after the purchase, Anna Netrebko infuriatingly cancelled on the ground that the role of Marguerite did not suit her. Is it not her responsibility, and indeed also that of the ROH management, to ensure that a role is suitable before she commits to an engagement, on the strength of which people are going to spend a lot of money to hear her? Her replacement Sonya Yoncheva I had heard a couple of times and she had been very good, though hardly to rank alongside Netrebko.

So be it. As I entered the theatre, two questions crossed my mind. Would what I was about to hear and see be worth four and a half performances at (say) Opera North which I could have attended for the same amount of money?  And how would it compare with the last Faust I had seen at Covent Garden In 1977 with an equally stellar cast (Mirella Freni, Alfredo  Kraus, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Thomas Allen). Let me start with the singers. The Mephistopheles of Bryn Terfel  was clearly of world class. Vocally at the top of his form, and with considerable stage presence, he perfectly captured the sardonic humour of this famous role. It has to be admitted that Simon Keenlyside did not excel in the first act aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux”, but thereafter, and particularly in his death scene, he gave a superb performance. Yoncheva was a convincing Marguerite, conveying in turn purity, passion and pathos, but though she sang idiomatically her outbursts in the church and prison scenes were strained. Joseph Calleja was a major disappointment; he was surely miscast in the title role. That the voice is too thick for it became clear in “Salut demeure chaste et pure”. This requires seamless scaling of the heights – instead, after belting out the top notes he had to change gear for the pianissimi. He was also a charmless figure on the stage. And I could not help recalling Kraus, the mellifluous Spanish tenor and specialist in the French repertoire; writing a review after his Faust in 1977, I said that he sang like a god.

But opera is not just about singing; what about the production? The 1977 staging had been kitsch, at times embarrassingly so. The McVicar production, in complete contrast, was rivetingly impressive. The idea of turning Mephistopheles’ machinations literally into a theatrical presentation was most successful. While remaining faithful to the themes of the piece, it contained some brilliantly inventive ideas, nowhere more so than in the Witches Sabbath scene, where a classical ballet transformed itself into a macabre thrashing about, as the principal female dancer reveals herself to be pregnant. Taken as a whole, a very engaging and enjoyable evening but not, in my opinion, worth four and a half Opera North performances.