The devil comes to town in McVicar’s thrilling new production of Faust for Opera Australia.
Sex, drugs and pleasure abound in Opera Australia’s stunning realisation of Goethe’s cautionary tale. An aging academic, betrayed by his body, makes a deal with the devil for a few more moments of pleasure and hedonism, and a chance with the beautiful Margerite. The devil, in the form of Mephistopheles, is a shape-shifter, showman and excellent salesman. Brimming with tricks and theatricals, he is flanked by his entourage of demons, furies, pimps and whores (played by a stand-out ensemble of dancers and actors).
In Sir David McVicar’s production of Gounod’s Faust, the world of sin and decadence embodied by Mephistopheles is juxtaposed with the tight-lipped morality of 19th century bourgeois Paris – all flag-waving nationalism and righteous religion.
As with Don Giovanni for Opera Australia last year, McVicar excels in highlighting the social taboos and subverted hierarchies inherent in both operas. The work is tightly paced, and the action shifts seamlessly from a decrepit theatre, to the raucous Cabaret L’Enfer, to Parisian streets and finally to Mephistopheles’ own inner sanctum.
As we witness Faust’s descent and the destruction of Margerite, the action becomes increasingly grotesque and surreal. The ballet in Act IV becomes a gothic horror, complete with a deranged prima ballerina and a frenzied orgy. The presence of a tiny coffin in the final act serves an ominous reminder of the consequences of Faust’s actions.
The opera retains a wry self-awareness throughout. Religious worship is a performance. Church is a performance. The act of going to war is a performance. Gary Dooley’s evocative lighting and clever use of the spotlight help to reiterate this, as with Charles Edwards’ overtly theatrical set design.
The casting is a rare treat, particularly with the three leads Michael Fabiano, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Nicole Car giving such finely tuned performances.
In the title role, American tenor Fabiano exceeds expectation and proves what all the fuss has been about. His voice is huge, warm and easy at the top. He sings with power and great sensitivity and demonstrates what a skillful physical actor he is, easily embodying Faust’s journey from old age, to youth to drug-addled death.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes is a worthy adversary in the role of Mephistopheles. As a master trickster and manipulator, Rhodes exploits his instrument to full effect, singing with seductive legato line and commanding lower registers.
As Margerite, Nicole Car captures the character’s youthful innocence and her lush lyric soprano is in full bloom. She sings with intuitive musicality and makes the Jewel Song sound all too easy.
Anna Dowsley is refreshing as the geeky Siebel, singing with sincerity and clear, rich tone. Giorgio Caoduro makes a moving Valentin and Dominica Matthews relishes her role as Margerite’s “overripe” next-door neighbor and guardian Marthe. Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire draws a fiery performance from the orchestra, with a rich, expansive reading of Gounod’s score and particularly impressive wind solos.
With taut revival direction from Bruno Ravella and a knock-out cast, this is the production OA audiences have been waiting for. If the 2015 season has left you a little luke-warm up until now, this could well be the show to change your mind.