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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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There’s a turn-up for the necromantic books during this revival of David McVicar’s 2004 Faust: we learn that René Pape, the virile and charismatic German bass, looks great in a frock. We also learn, if we didn’t already know, that he is one of the finest lyric singers on the circuit – albeit a circuit that in his case too rarely includes London. As the diabolical Méphistophélès, Pape is the engine that drives a Rolls-Royce cast through Gounod’s sprawling opera. And he purrs.

The frock – a black diamante ballgown, to be precise – features in McVicar’s freewheeling, Hoffmannesque interpretation of the Walpurgis Night sequence that dominates Act Five. The music for this scene sounds disconcertingly well-behaved to modern ears, and the production does well to inject it (literally in the case of Faust, syringe in hand) with a hallucinatory quality. Indeed, upturned normality is emblematic of the evening as a whole, and episodes of dramatic feebleness from the composer and his librettists are regularly shored up by McVicar’s robust visual ideas, restaged by Lee Blakeley with a confident theatrical swagger.

The eponymous anti-hero is played by Vittorio Grigolo, the stylish young Italian whose Des Grieux (in Massenet’s Manon) caused such a stir last year. Faust begins the opera as an old man, and Grigolo relishes the opportunity to mangle his consonants and shuffle about the stage until, rejuvenated by Mephisto’s magic means, the young tenor comes coltishly, irresistibly to life and his thrilling voice takes possession of the Royal Opera House. The opera’s great tenor arias ring forth, and all that’s missing is a sense of the soul-selling doctor’s inner torture.

Angela Gheorghiu reprises the role of Marguerite that she sang at the production’s creation. Her sugar-dusted soprano has lost none of its grace and purity, although on opening night her opening number, the strophic song ‘Il était un roi de Thulé’, felt tense. It took a round of ecstatic applause to loosen her vocal chords, after which the rest of the evening was a breeze. Gheorghiu glittered and was gay in the Jewel Song; she twitched and trembled like a lost soul during Marguerite’s madness.

Only the incidental nature of his role, that of Marguerite’s soldier brother Valentin, relegates the Russian bass-baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky to fourth billing. He uses that powerful, heroic voice to imbue his famous Act Two aria ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ with a controlled authority. As for the minor roles, they are all well taken by Daniel Grice, Carole Wilson and, in the trouser role of Siébel, the vivacious Canadian mezzo Michèle Losier.

Evelino Pidò conducts with plenty of verve (speeds are on the fast side, which is no bad thing with such a workaday score) but with little by way of definition or character. While he supports the singers very sympathetically (including the tireless Royal Opera Chorus), this music needs a greater sense of imaginative coloration than Pidò provides if it is to hold the attention. Even with this cast, there are longueurs. Still, thanks to David McVicar’s intriguing collision of worlds – CanCan meets Bob Fosse in the choreography; Catholicism meets showbiz in the set design – this Faust leaves an imprint on the mind that’s as stark as a nightmare and as elusive as a dream.

- Mark Valencia


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