Gounod, Faust

The weekend at the Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic continued.  First I heard an orchestral concert, then a chamber concert, and tonight an opera: Gounod’Faust.  Musically, this was an exciting performance.  It was staged (in Salzburg’s Great Festival House), although it probably should not have been.

Stage director Reinhard von der Thannen is not German (indeed, he is Austrian) but he works primarily in Germany, and clearly he has been infected by whatever horrible disease has caused German opera directors to lose their ability to stage operas in the last half century or so.  The staging was at least not offensive, as German productions often are, but it was almost literally a circus.  The chorus were dressed up as clowns, and the main cast members often were as well.  There were acrobats.  There were lights (in fact, too many – the stage was usually glowing with bright light shining into the audience, sometimes blindingly so, to the point people were covering their eyes and some put on sunglasses).  There was comedy.  It had nothing to do with the plot, and often distracted from it.

Young Argentinian conductor Alejo Pérez led a well-paced performance with the right orchestral coloring – both the colors and the amounts.  He managed to showcase the wonderful solos in the orchestra without overwhelming the singers, quite a fine balance to achieve.  And considering the nonsense taking place on stage, these were especially difficult circumstances.  To a degree, he forged ahead regardless of the imbecilic stage director, to craft a gripping drama.

The cast also helped in this sense, as they all demonstrated an understanding of the opera and the words they were singing, so could spin the right emotions regardless of what von der Thannen had them doing or had going on around them.

Piotr Beczala headed the cast in the title role.  While his acting and stage presence was superb, he was not in his best voice this evening, and was straining in the upper registers.  But, although Faust is the title character, Gounod’s setting is not actually about Faust – indeed, for many years the opera was performed under the name “Margarethe” to emphasize that she was understood to be the central character.  Maria Agresta did superb in that role.

However, for me, the key figure in this opera is actually Mephistopheles.  He drives the plot.  Ildar Abdrazakov handled that remarkably – even managing to sneak in some of the comedy von der Thannen had going on as a subtext.  This was a charming devil, but the devil he was.

Of the small roles, Alexey Markov stood out as a strong and courageous Valentin.  The Philharmonia Chor Wien was outstanding.  A performance worth hearing (although maybe only worth seeing to experience the sound live – it was recorded, but music sounds so much better when not over the tin).

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