Faust, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, April 2014

With only a few weeks to go before opening night, Anna Netrebko pulled out from the role of Marguerite, but we need not have worried. Her replacement, 32-year old Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, due to sing the same role at the Vienna State Opera next month, more than made up for the loss. She brought a glorious purity of tone to her lengthy aria and thrilling discovery of the jewels towards the end of Act III, and her following duet with Joseph Calleja’s Faust, well set off by Paule Constable’s excellent lighting, was sheer delight.

Méphistophélès and the aged Faust, all images ROH/ ©Bill Cooper

Méphistophélès and the aged Faust, all images ROH/ ©Bill Cooper

Calleja was in superb voice, his portrayal of the aged Faust beautifully contrasted with the burst of youthful inspiration he suddenly exhibits after signing the contract with Méphistophélès and throwing off his professor’s robes. This transformation of a lovelorn older man is hardly echt Goethe, but Gounod’s opera is still called Margarethe in Germany. Certainly as this elaborate pantomime evolves she becomes the main character, mocked and hit by those vicious screaming ballerinas, who are raped by the demons of hell — a transitory reminder of the prologue in the ROH’s recent production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes.

Marguerite and Faust

Marguerite and Faust

Yet we do of course get the wonderful ballet music, with Eric Underwood showing superb style as the principal male dancer, even if the mid-nineteenth century Gothic splendour of David McVicar’s production occasionally seems slightly over the top. The long black dress of Méphistophélès makes him look like Faust’s bride in hell, yet it is all in the good cause of supporting Gounod’s theatrical music, beautifully interpreted by maestro Maurizio Benini, with strong singing from the chorus.

What this opera lacks in dramatic coherence it makes up for as a marvellous vehicle for the singers, and the glorious performances of Calleja and Yoncheva were complemented by Bryn Terfel’s dramatic portrayal of the devil himself, and Simon Keenlyside’s wonderful Valentin. His Avant de quitter ces lieux in Act II was the first show stopper of the evening, and the power and sincerity of his death scene in Act IV provided the turning point for the forces of hell to remain ascendant until the final apotheosis of Marguerite.

Defeat for Valentin

Defeat for Valentin

Excellent singing too from Renata Pokupić in the trouser role of Siébel, bass Jihoon Kim as Wagner, and Diana Montague as Marthe as she is seduced by the devil. The ROH have brought together a terrific cast, deftly bypassing Ms. Netrebko’s absence.

Performances continue until April 25, with a BBC Radio 3 live broadcast on April 22 at 7 p.m. — for details click here.

Leave a Comment