Faust review (Sydney Opera House)

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In director David McVicar’s production of Charles Gounod’s Faust, which premiered at Covent Garden in 2004, Opera Australia has found a piece of theatre brimming with life, energy and wit. That dramatic standard is matched by the musical standard, making this Faust one of the highlights of the season.

I’m not entirely sure its plot, deeply rooted in religion, superstition and morality, retains its universality — which is probably why the 1859 hit has been less frequently performed since the 1950s. An elderly doctor makes a pact with the devil in exchange for youth, falls in love with and then impregnates and abandons a young, innocent woman. There’s not a lot to it, but it’s a well-crafted narrative, told very well in this instance. And the score holds its straight-forward thrills and feels more contemporary than many written around the same period.

McVicar has moved the action from 16th century Germany to the composer’s own 19th century Paris. It slides smoothly into that time period, thanks to Charles Edwards’ almost impressionistic set, which is one-third a cathedral, one-third a Paris street and one-third a beautiful, classic theatre. Every opportunity to inject the opera with colour and movement is exploited by choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan who choreographs a cheeky can-can for the second act and then a hilarious and demonic ballet for the fifth, combining traditional ballet technique with wild, visceral, sexual movement.

Thankfully, McVicar’s production has been perfectly cast for its first Australian outing and been recreated with fine attention to detail by revival director Bruno Ravella. In a role that fits him like a glove, Teddy Tahu Rhodes brings his regular, devilish power to Méphistophélès — reimagined by McVicar as the ultimate showman, popping up around Paris in various guises. His wry, understated dramatic sensibilities perfectly match the production and he’s in excellent vocal form, delivering a more colourful performance than usual. His Le veau d’or is particularly rousing.

American tenor Michael Fabiano provides a thrilling vocal performance in the title role, with oodles of power and a smooth, consistent vocal line. When he unleashes all of his power at the top of his range, the effect is captivating. The sound rings true and is completely secure, but you do wonder if he might be giving a little too much. He’s also drawn a fine characterisation, right from the shaky old man Faust of the first act to the dashing, love-sick young man in the third.

Nicole Car’s vocal performance as Marguerite is faultless — musically sensitive and effortlessly clear. Her performance of the Jewel Song is a masterclass in how to seamlessly combine operatic voice with a strong acting technique.

Dominica Matthews makes a brief but memorable appearance as Marguerite’s guardian Marthe, Richard Anderson’s vocal performance is assured as Wagner and Anna Dowsley brings a sweet sincerity to Siebel.

Guillaume Tourniaire leads the Australian Ballet and Orchestra through a passionate, dynamic reading of the score. There’s some excellent ensemble work in the pit and some stunning, astute woodwind solos. Tourniaire and his three leading singers (Fabiano, Car and Tahu Rhodes) are always in step, but he seemed to push the tempo of Valentin’s Avant der quitter ces lieux a little past Giorgio Caoduro’s comfort zone and then left him exposed without the full support of the orchestra in the aria’s challenging final verse. Apart from that slight stumble, Caoduro’s performance was solid on opening night.

With the chorus in excellent voice and the full spectacle of a ‘grand opera’, a large portion of the audience was brought to their feet at the curtain call. Although the production is superb, that kind of response is usually reserved for absolute triumphs with some extraordinary, novel feature. Were we hearing the relief and appreciation of OA’s loyal Sydney subscribers that they’ve finally been given a new production? It has been a while.

For my money, it’s Car who deserves the standing ovation more than anybody onstage. The young soprano is already one of the most consistent singers and actors in the OA stable, and her vocal and dramatic style becomes more idiosyncratic and unique every time she takes to the stage. It’s those honest, individual vocal characteristics which will undoubtedly see her triumph on the world stage. She’s running on full steam in Faust, and that’s reason enough to visit this production.

Faust is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 13, with an additional performance now added due to high demand for Monday, March 9. Featured image by Lisa Tomasetti

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