INO’s Faust at the Dublin Theatre Festival

The Irish National Opera stages for the first time the old warhorse, Gounod’s Faust. To breathe fresh life into it, what should be the strategy? Assembling a strong cast is essential; and all of the singers engaged were certainly first-rate. Dominating proceedings was Nicholas Brownlees as Mephistopheles: a massive, fruity bass, with a sense of sardonic humour and a capacity for inventive, spontaneous response to all that went on around him. In the title role Duke Kim greatly impressed, his silvery tenor maintaining a purity of tone throughout its range and, unlike many Fausts, projecting an intense character study on the stage. Jennifer Davis might have given Marguerite a more conventional profile, but her full-voiced, tender but vulnerable musical interpretation gave much pleasure. After a rather unsteady rendering of “Avant de quitter ces lieux”, Gyula Nagy offered a forceful Valentin; Gemma Ni Bhriain was a touching Siebel, and Colette McGahon’s Marthe resisted cliché. Elaine Kelly, leading the INO Orchestra, underpinned the performance with a thoroughly idiomatic rendering of Gounod’s score, tightly controlling both pace and dynamics, and there was a robust contribution from the excellent augmented chorus.

So far, so good, but, as regards staging, the piece poses a considerable challenge if the conventional mixture of Satanic mischief and sentimental innocence is to be avoided. Director Jack Furness and designer Francis O’Connor undoubtedly gambled by packing the production with social and political commentary. The context of Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles was a harsh, but also compelling, portrayal of 19th century industrial capitalism, with Marguerite’s exploitation and seduction resulting primarily from her poverty and working-class status. This approach generated some vivid visual images: tall chimneys belching forth smoke, factory furnaces being opened to reveal literally Satan’s hell. Overall-clad workers, both male and female, toiled with the machinery, while the top-hatted owners strode backward and forward overviewing their efforts. Militarism might have had an initial appeal for the workers but, as the pathos of the Soldiers’ Chorus masking coffins and wounded veterans revealed, war provided no release.   Nor was religion forgotten. Victorian hypocritical attitudes to sex and society ironized the church scenes and Marguerite’s ascent to heaven. Dramatic communication was strengthened by bifurcating the role of Faust into a young singer and an actor (Nick Dunning) as the aged Doctor, facilitating the character’s internal self-questioning of his desires.

Did the gamble come off? In my judgement it was 80% successful. Some of the audience, accustomed to more conventional costume affairs, might have been somewhat perplexed; and, in the long evening, there were sequences when the interpretive perspective seemed to offer little; for example, the seduction scene and its associated comic antics in Act Three. But the sheer theatricality of what was offered overcame any doubts. Most appropriately, this dazzling example of music drama was presented as part of Dublin’s annual Theatre Festival.