Faust and the ukulele of Satan

Opera can be a rather silly art form, but I’m usually good at suspending disbelief. I wrote an earnest review of a Turandot about insects, you know. But I find Gounod’s sappy Faust to be difficult to take seriously in the best of circumstances. At some point a few minutes into last night’s revival of the Wiener Staatsoper’s so-called “production,” after Roberto Alagna had trundled around for a while wearing a bad Halloween old person mask, after Erwin Schrott un-Velcroed part of a curtain with a resounding pshhhhht to reveal himself in scowling demonic form, which apparently means looking like a shirtless member of Green Day circa 1993, while I was watching a distracted bass player in the orchestra dreamily sway along with the music, my companion nudged me to look at the translated titles:

[Roberto Alagna:] Give it to me now.
[Erwin Schrott:] So now you want it!

And I gave up. Musically it was fine and not too memorable, but dramatically this performance occasionally achieved a level of campiness that wasn’t the awkward and trying-too-hard kind you often get from opera, but rather rare, transcendent, La Puma ridiculousness. Excuse me, but I was unable to take any of it remotely seriously. I’m in the midst of my Easter marathon, between Dialogues des carmélites and Parsifal, cut me some slack here. I had a great time, but maybe not in the way that I was supposed to.

Gounod, Faust. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/23/2011. Production after an idea by Nicolas Joël and Stéphane Roche, conducted by Alain Altinoglu with Roberto Alagna (Faust), Erwin Schrott (Méphistophélès), Alexandra Reinprecht (Marguerite), Adrian Eröd (Valentin), Sophie Marilley (Siébel).

The Staatsoper’s Faust was in its 17th performance since its 2008 premiere. It is unquestionably a disaster. No director’s name appears on it, it is “after an idea by Nicolas Joël and Stéphane Roche.” What idea that would be escapes me. The deal was that partway through the production process original director Joël had a stroke, the set designer died, and what constituted the production went onstage anyway. This means crowds of dimly lit people dressed in gray period costumes standing still in front of a group of rotating translucent walls, a few trees, a bench and some barrels. Méphistophélès’s party is some red light. The hulking pipe organ in the church scene perhaps ate up a good deal of the budget, but to little effect. This is the kind of production where the lights compliantly brighten on the line “O nuit d’amour, ciel radieux.” If you think Gounod’s opera already has something of a problem with dramatic stature, this dinky, empty staging doesn’t help. The text is complete with the exception of no ballet.

I maintain an inexplicable affection for wobbly ham Roberto Alagna, and was happy to see his Faust. The voice is past its best, with a nasal, raw quality and a restricted dynamic range of mezzo forte and forte, not suited to the delicacy of this music. He does have a high C, though it is not that pretty nor is it piano. But he knows the style, is quite musical, and sometimes can get it together for some excellent phrases. Vocally this was good if not overpowering. He also offered a cartwheel at the end of Act I (!). Acting-wise his Faust was disappointingly generic and low-key. Alagna tends to play everything with boyish charm, which doesn’t help this production raise the stakes, particularly because he was oddly lacking in intensity. He premiered this production (with Angela!), but in this case I doubt that made a difference, rehearsal-wise. In a better production, he probably would have done more for me.

Single-handedly attempting to spice things up was Erwin Schrott’s Mephistophélès. Vocally he did nothing to disgrace himself, sounding solid, loud enough, and moderately dark but smooth of tone. I could not understand his French well. But mostly he offered theatrical entertainment as a very fey devil, prone to moonwalking and doing the Robot. The production inexplicably equips him with a bright red fan (maybe that was Joël’s idea?), which Schrott used for such highlights as feeling up Marthe’s boobs while fanning himself to the orchestra’s tremolos (though it must be added that there was a lot of one-sided Mephistophélès/Faust homoeroticism going on here as well). For serenading Margeurite, he swapped the fan out for a ukulele, strumming and cackling manically. It was a self-conscious performance, and more or less the same performance Schrott always gives, but I somehow don’t think he intended it to be quite as hilariously ridiculous as I found it. I may have set a record for suppressed inappropriate giggling during this evening.

Yes, that’s Angela in the prima, as a blonde.

I mean, anything to keep you interested in something like this, right? Alexandra Reinprecht’s Marguerite was a respectable effort with some nice piano singing, her tone wavering between shimmery and unfocussed and shrill. Adrian Eröd’s Valentin also lacked tonal allure and legato despite musical refinement. Sophie Marilley’s slightly grainy Siébel was pretty good. Alain Altinoglu’s conducting was also good, not too sweet or overly dramatic and well-paced. But honestly, despite a good amount of talent I found myself mostly there for the LOLs, of which there were an alarming quantity.

It can’t be Parsifal every night–though it is in fact Parsifal tonight for me. One performance of Faust remains, on Tuesday.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper

  1. A seminal work from the "Cannon", "popularity", a nice juicy part for bass, one of my favorite tenor arias….Doch, ich habe Angst ich muss mit Zerbinetta und defop einverstanden: der Faust gefallt mir nicht. Bisweilen er ist sehr sehr langweilig.

    (I'll see your enmity to German grammar and raise you, Zerb).

    Reinprecht sounded kinda iffy on ORF this morning. A few years ago she managed not to annoy me as Sophie, a considerable achievement.

    I'm still going to the new production at the Met next year if I'm in town, of course.

  2. I'm sending you a few Umlauts, conjunctions, and a reminder that the main verb should be found in the second position, marcillac. Mais à propos de Faust, nous sommes en accord (tous les trois). I'll go to the Met production too but wish they'd put two of my favorite singers together in Don Carlo instead.

    I'm a little undecided about Reinprecht. Can't decide if it's a shimmer or an airy flutter.

  3. Thanks Zerb (I need all the help I can get – see bellow). I posted and then realized that the last minute insertion of the "bisweilen" (I was trying, for some reason I can't quite identify, soften the criticism of the Faust) required inversion but decided to leave it at that.

    Speaking of Don Carlo, as of today I'l be spending the first half of 2012 in Munich (luckily all of my work will be in English – he, he) and will, it need hardly be said, partake of the absurdly luxurious Harteros/Kaufmann/Pape version.

    Walkure rather troubling tonight.

  4. Def, shaved but a bit on the soft side. He set a high standard of buffness in Don Giovanni a few years ago but appears to have dialed down the gym time since. The joys of parenthood.

    marcillac, you can go chat with my recent Parsifal, Ventris. For someone who has sung at Bayreuth his German pronunciation is pretty bad. I'm jealous that you'll get that Don Carlos cast, which has three of my five favorite singers in it.

    Troubling? Uh oh.