Tuesday 4 June 2019

Charles Gounod’s Faust has returned to favour after spending a few years in the wilderness. Planet Hugill’s roving reporter, Tony Cooper, picks up the show in Nice

Gounod: Faust - Opéra de Nice (Photo Dominique Jaussein)
Gounod: Faust - Opéra de Nice (Photo Dominique Jaussein)
Gounod Faust: Stefano Secco, Nicolas Courjal, Chloé Chaume, Armando Noguera, dir: Nadine Duffaut, cond: Giuliano Carella; Opéra de Nice Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 28 May 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Gounod's grand opera in a splendid new production on the Opéra on the Côte d’Azur

Gounod: Faust - Chloé Chaume, Stefano Secco - Opéra de Nice (Photo Dominique Jaussein)
Gounod: Faust - Chloé Chaume, Stefano Secco
Opéra de Nice (Photo Dominique Jaussein)
Charles Gounod’s Faust has returned to favour after spending a few years in the wilderness. Planet Hugill’s roving reporter, Tony Cooper, picks up the show at Opéra de Nice in a grand and rewarding production in a forthright dramatic realisation by Nadine Duffaut, which has been well received by French opera-lovers, with Stefano Secco as Faust, Nicolas Courjal  as Mephistopheles, Chloé Chaume as Marguerite and Armando Noguera conducted by Giuliano Carella

An opera in five acts with the original scenario set in 16th-century Germany, Gounod’s Faust - set to a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré from Carré’s play Faust et Marguerite and based on Part One of Goethe’s epic poem - was a major inspiration for many composers during the 19th century.

The work first saw the light of day at the Théâtre-Lyrique, Paris, in 1859. A decade later it appeared at the Grand Opéra, Paris. For this production Gounod added a ballet to act five. When it arrived in London it 1863 it was first seen at Her Majesty’s Theatre and a year later at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden.

However, from my perspective, the opera first saw the light of day when I attended a performance of Carl Rosa’s endearing production at Norwich Theatre Royal in 1958 (11th April to be precise). It made a big impression upon me and got me hooked on opera. Faust was sung by Brychan Powell, Méphistophélès (Stanislav Pieczora) and Marguerite (Estelle Valery). Edward Renton was in the pit.

Des McAnuff's 2010 production for English National Opera impressed me, too. I can’t believe it was that long ago! C’est la vie! Conducted by Edward Gardner, Iain Paterson took the role of Méphistophélès, Toby Spence (Faust) and Melody Moore (Marguerite). Recently, David McVicar mounted a new production for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden featuring Michael Fabiano (Faust), Erwin Schrott (Méphistophélès) and Irina Lungu (Marguerite), conducted by Dan Ettinger.

Now the opera comes back to France at Opéra de Nice on the splendid Côte d’Azur. What a come-back, too! A co-production with Opéra Grand Avignon (first seen there in 2017), Opéra de Massy, Opéra-Théâtre de Metz-Métropole, Opéra de Reims and Opéra de Marseille, Nadine Duffaut’s realisation captured so vividly the poor tortured and anguished soul of Dr Faust who has spent a lifetime studying philosophy and is disillusioned about life to the point of madness and suicide. When we first meet him he’s rumbling about in his study littered with a lifetime’s reading tearing pages from a book trying to find the answer to love, lost youth and eternal happiness but to no avail.

Gounod: Faust - Opéra de Nice (Photo Dominique Jaussein)
Gounod: Faust - Opéra de Nice (Photo Dominique Jaussein)

Antoine Normand as Old Faust put in a fine and dignified performance seemingly conjuring up in his disturbed mind all sort of fantasies and odd philosophical ideas while cursing God and calling for the devil at the same time. Méphistophélès, of course, duly obliges. He offers him power, glory and riches beyond the dreams of avarice but really he craves for only the return of his lost youth and love.

The devil agrees to his demands but at a price. Therefore, Faust will be seen as master on earth but in the world of Hades, the roles will be reversed. When Faust hesitates, Méphistophélès conjures up a vision of Marguerite to tempt him of the evils of the flesh and her image was neatly represented by a black-and-white video sequence that, in the end, convinces a deliberating Faust to sign the devil’s contract.

As Young Faust, Milan-born singer, Stefano Secco, put in a spirited and convincing performance equally matched by his acting ability while Nicolas Courjal as Méphistophélès was a perfect choice for the role. His deep-bass voice dug deep into Gounod’s rich and colourful score and his rendering of the demonic aria ‘Song of the Golden Calf’ (Le veau d’or est toujours debout) was sung mischievously and menacing to great audience delight.

He dominated the stage in every conceivable way and was athletic and fluid in his performance portraying his sinister character in a suave-like manner. Smartly dressed in blue-denim jeans, a white T-shirt and a black-leather jacket it was down to his zazzy pair of red shoes that provided the only clue to his identity. The devil in disguise, really!

Chloé Chaume - harbouring a refined and serene lyric-soprano voice - was absolutely magnificent, too, in the pivotal role of Marguerite. She delivered a well-read and immaculate performance that would be hard to beat. First seen as a pretty young girl with hope, ideas and vision and then as a broken woman, seduced, abandoned and wanton, carrying Faust’s child.

The powerful scene in which she witnesses her brother dying and hearing his curse being laid upon her with Méphistophélès damning her at the same time was a dramatically-charged scene while her delivery of ‘The Jewel Song’ (Ah, je ris de me voir) highlighted the wide range of her crystal-clear voice. Her performance was as perfect as one could possibly get.

Overall, the casting was excellent. Armando Noguera delivered an intelligent performance as Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, who killed himself by his own dagger by the magical intervention of Méphistophélès following his homecoming from the battlefield seen against a video sequence showing Legionnaires in action attired in desert-coloured fatigues.

Camille Tresmontant’s reading of the village youth Siebel (normally a trouser role) and an admirer of Marguerite was well portrayed and Jeanne-Marie Lévy’s portrayal of Martha Schwerlein (Marguerite’s neighbour) was forcefully sung and acted, too, with young Martha enjoying a special moment with the devil.

Philippe Ermelier in the role of Wagner put in a convincing and entertaining performance, too, having the time of his life in a masked ball while his delivery of the Song of the Rat came over in a bawdy and burlesque way while members of the chorus added more than a strong voice to the overall scene.

The final act proved a telling moment with the Walpurgis’ Night demonic orgy overheating as befitting this satanic-fuelled event. A team of aerialists and acrobats were to be seen here, there and everywhere while drinking, revelry and dancing carried on as if there was no tomorrow. But, of course, there always is.

As dawn approaches, Faust sees a misty vision of Marguerite and calls out for her. Always on hand to help, Méphistophélès arrives on the scene in the nick of time helping him to gain entry to the prison (represented in this production by a ring of chains hanging from the gridiron) where she’s being held for killing her child.

The couple’s delivery of the aria ‘Yes, I love you’ (Oui, c’est toi que j’aime) provided a passionate end to their long-held dreams but, in the end, she preferred to trust her lot to God and His angels rather than a mortal being. The singing of the Trio ‘Pure and radiant angels’ (Anges purs, anges radieux), one of the most ravishing numbers in the entire opera, was sung with such defiance and pride, truly summing up, I feel, the best of Gounod and, most probably, the best of 19th-century opera.

Gounod: Faust - Opéra de Nice (Photo Dominique Jaussein)
Gounod: Faust - Opéra de Nice (Photo Dominique Jaussein)
As Marguerite’s soul rises majestically to heaven one hears Méphistophélès cursing as a voice on high rings out ‘Saved!’ while the bells of Easter sound and an off-stage chorus of angels chant ‘Christ is risen!’ In utter despair Faust falls to his knees in prayer while Méphistophélès is turned away by the shining sword of the Archangel and left to rot in his own evilness.

If the performers found themselves on top form so did members of the Orchestre philharmonique de Nice under the baton of Giuliano Carella while the Chœur de l’Opéra de Nice under the direction of Giulio Magnanini showed their class. They excelled in their big-production numbers particularly the most famous and most memorable of all, The Soldier’s Chorus, a showstopper like no other! Gounod certainly knew how to knock out a good tune - one the devil didn’t get his hands on - and none comes better than this.

Director (Nadine Duffaut)
Assistant director (Franck Licari)
Musical director (Giuliano Carella)
Set designer (Emmanuelle Favre); assistant (Thibaut Sinay)
Costume designer (Gérard Audier)
Lighting designer (Philippe Grosperrin)
Faust (Stefano Secco)
Le vieux Faust (Antoine Normand)
Méphistophélès (Nicolas Courjal)
Marguerite (Chloé Chaume)
Valentin, a soldier, brother to Marguerite (Armando Noguera)
Siebel, a village youth, in love with Marguerite (Camille Tresmontant)
Wagner, a student (Philippe Ermelier)
Martha Schwerlein, neighbour to Marguerite (Jeanne-Marie Lévy)
Orchestre philharmonique de Nice, conducted by Giuliano Carella
Chœur de l’Opéra de Nice, directed by Giulio Magnanini

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