Saturday 10 June 2017

Powerful Murnau-inspired re-invention: Gounod's 'Faust' in Riga

Gounod: Faust - Latvian National Opera (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Gounod: Faust - closing of Act One - (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Gounod Faust; Benjamin Bernheim, Marina Rebeka, Andreas Bauer, dir: Aik Karapetian, cond: Tadeusz Wojciechowski; Latvian National Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 8 2017
Star rating: 4.5

German expressionist horror films inspire a striking production by a young Latvian director

Gounod: Faust - Andreass Bauer (Mephistopheles) & ensemble (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Gounod: Faust - Andreas Bauer (Mephistopheles) & ensemble
(Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Riga's opera house, built as the German theatre in 1863, is outside a sober traditional neo-classical building (by an architect from St Petersburg), with an exuberant gilded interior, handsomely restored, which is now the home of Latvian National Opera and Ballet. For the last 20 years the company has held the Riga Opera Festival in June, celebrating some of the major productions from the past season.

The 20th Riga Opera Festival opened on 8 June 2017 with Aik Karapetian's production of Gounod's Faust which had opened in September 2016 and which won best production in the 2017 Latvian National Music Awards. The opera was presented in French in Gounod's final grand opera version complete with the Walpurgis night scene. The conductor was Tadeusz Wojciechowski with Marina Rebeka as Marguerite, Benjamin Bernheim as Faust, Andreas Bauer as Mephistopheles, Valdis Jansons as Valentin and Laura Grecka as Siebel, with both Rebeka and Bernheim making their debuts in the production.

Aik Karapetian is a young Latvian film director (his film Firstborn is out later this year) and Faust is only his second opera production (he directed Il barbiere di Sivigla for Latvian National Opera in 2012).

Gounod: Faust - Benjamin Bernheim (Faust), Marina Rebeka (Marguerite) (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Gounod: Faust - Benjamin Bernheim (Faust), Marina Rebeka (Marguerite)
(Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
He has turned to film for his inspiration for the production, notably German expressionist film with FW Murnau's Faust and Nosferatu in particular. The Gothic atmosphere was heightened by Kristaps Skulte's designs,  fixed set of multiple levels of Gothic arches, a great use of black and white, stylised period costumes and wigs (costume designer Kristine Pasternaka), stylised white makeup and a lighting plot (AJ Weissbard) which emphasised darkness.

This was a visually arresting production which had the great advantage of taking the opera seriously, at the same time as minimising the vein of sentimental religiosity in the opera.

Much use was made of video (Artis Dzerve), sometimes simply to create atmosphere, and sometimes as part of the narrative. We first see Mephistopheles as a huge shadow on the scrim, and at the end of Act One, the dancing chorus is being controlled by a huge hand of Mephistopheles projected in silhouette on the rear screen. Karapetian used this device to realise the magic such as the giant silhouettes of Faust and Valentin fighting and being controlled by Mephistopheles, but also in the Act Two garden scene to place Mephistopheles firmly on-stage with Faust and Marguerite as silhouettes.

Gounod: Faust - Valdis Jansons (Valentin) & ensemble (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Gounod: Faust - Valdis Jansons (Valentin) & ensemble
(Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
It was the role of Mephistopheles (Andreas Bauer) which had been extensively re-thought. Bauer was wonderfully sardonic, terrorising the townspeople with relish. I particularly liked the moment when he offered them wine from his own cask, here he drew the blood of a female victim. The Jewel Song saw Bauer in a grand dress and dressed in jewels and forming a mirror to Marguerite (Marina Rebeka) whose transformation included a sparkly dress as well as jewels. Bauer played the role with panache, relish and not a little style, singing in creditable French. He used his dark-ish voice to nice effect and had the right power but flexibility too, and the set pieces were well done. There was humour but it was sardonically black. Perhaps, ultimately, he lacked just the right element of edge, but this was a fine re-invention, taking the character seriously.

In all this Gothic horror, the French tenor Benjamin Bernheim as Faust was something of an innocent abroad. But Aik Karapetian had started with a striking touch the older Faust in the first scene was played by a different, older singer (Olegs Orlovs), with Bernheim making his first appearance as the re-juvenate Faust. It was a pleasure to hear a Francophone tenor in the role, even if I had to travel to Latvia for it! Bernheim has a lithe, narrow focussed French-style voice just right for this role. He combined flexibility with focused power. he could produce nice fluid tone for 'Salut demeure' though his very top lacked an ideal honeyed mezza-voce. Yet he could also add power for the later scenes. Whilst his tone could turn a little penetrating under pressure, this was a notable account of the role. And he successfully incarnated the innocent abroad, bewildered at the world Mephistopheles had let him to.

Gounod: Faust - Andreass Bauer (Mephistopheles), Benjamin Bernheim (Faust), Valdis Jansons (Valentin) (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Andreas Bauer, Benjamin Bernheim, Valdis Jansons
(Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Marina Rebeka made a charming Marguerite, making her reticence seem in character and not simply simple-minded. She brought a real sense of naive charm and wonder to the scene where she is tempted. Rebeka has a fine lyric voice with a nice line in coloratura, and some steel too. The Jewel Song was well done, but so were the more intense lyric scene. She was well matched by Bernheim, both have narrow focus voices with great flexibility and projection. In their love duet the two combined to produce a seductive sense of fluid line. Though in the closing scenes Rebeka did rather push too much so her tone hardened.

Valdis Jansons as a notable Valentin, singing with an impressive suaveness and flexibility. Valentin can often seem rather pompous, but the intelligence of Jansons singing won the day here and I wished there had been more for him to do. Jansons is definitely a baritone to watch. Karapetian's concept of Siebel as an ardent yet over-enthusiastic youth worked well and Laura Grecka brought a great deal of puppyish enthusiasm to bear, rushing hither and thither, yet giving us some nicely considered phrasing in her Act Two aria. Rihards Macanovskis and Kristine Zadovska provided strong support as Wagner and Marthe.

Linda Mila's choreography for the Walpurgis Night did its best, essentially it was Faust's vision of multiple dancing Marguerites, but Gounod's music here is simply too trite to be rendered dramatically and only when a bloodied Marguerite appeared did the drama resume.

The ending was rendered effectively, with Marguerite rising up and walking upstage into blazing light, which cause the figure of Mephistopheles (high up on the set) to be ultimately eclipsed. But our final image was of Faust, covered in blood.

Gounod: Faust - Andreass Bauer (Mephistopheles), Marina Rebeka (Marguerite) & dancers (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Gounod: Faust - Walpurgis Night - Andreas Bauer (Mephistopheles), Marina Rebeka (Marguerite) & dancers
(Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Karapetian's film background showed perhaps in the way he used lighting to focus on people and scenes, to give us something akin to a close-up. Yet he clearly has a way of re-inventing his vision as a theatrical event. The personenregie was quite detailed and only in his tendency to treat the chorus as a single block did we get a hint of limitation.

This was a conventional large-scale grand opera Faust, with Tadeusz Wojciechowski in the pit drawing a suitably grandly dramatic performance from the orchestra. I felt the singers would have benefited from a little holding back in the final scenes, but in the earlier, more intimate moments Wojciechowski and the orchestra gave us some poised accompaniment.

This production was a notable re-invention of an opera that, in danger of becoming hackneyed, has rather fallen out of favour. I do hope to see further productions by Aik Karapetian (and you will be able to read my interview with him later in the week), and Faust is well worth a detour if you find your way to Riga.

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