Philippe Fénelon - Faust

ONP Garnier, Wednesday March 31 2010

Conductor: Bernhard Kontarsky. Production: Pet Halmen. L’Homme, Görg: Gilles Ragon. Faust: Arnold Bezuyen. Méphistophélès: Robert Bork. Wagner, Le Moine: Gregory Reinhart. Le Forgeron: Bartlomiej Misiuda. Le Duc, Le Capitaine: Eric Huchet. La Femme du forgeron, La Princesse: Marie-Adeline Henry. Annette: Karolina Andersson. Kurt: Johan Christensson. Hans: Stanislas de Barbeyrac. Guillaume: Antoine Michel. Kathe: Zoé Nicolaidou. Suschen: Ilona Krzywicka. Lieschen: Aude Extrémo. Quatre Matelots: Hyun-Jung Roh, David Fernandez-Gainza, Chae Wook Lim, Shin Jae Kim. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Seeing a new opera, Charles Jennens might, if he were around today, be tempted to turn around his famous remark about Semele: "no oratorio, but a bawdy opera." Many of today's works are, in my experience, "no opera, but a dreary oratorio." I usually take one or two contemporary pieces each season, but make my way to the theatre fearing the worst (another L'Amour de Loin, say).

Philippe Fénelon's Faust doesn't entirely break the mould: the text, in German and based on a version of the myth by Nicolas Lenau, is wordy and philosophical and consistently grim, though a good deal less exasperating than Maalouf's corny effort. There's so much of it you don't always have time to read the supertitles. But, even if the work isn't action packed - rather a series of tableaux - it tells the Faust story (or part of it) and the music and singing are unmistakeably opera.

The score is definitely post-serial and not at all trying – indeed suspiciously likeable - with often countable metres, recognisable arias, ensembles and choruses, some good noises (including frequent recourse, Prokofiev-style, to the contra-bass end of the orchestra) and standard forms: Ländler, for example, or a near-classic chorale. There are some splendid, lush interludes that brushed close to film music (and I wonderd if a suite might be made of them, like Britten’s Sea Interludes). The vocal style was close to Berg and made similar, hair-raising demands, not always met. On the whole the men were better than the women - particularly low in volume even at Garnier - but it would be interesting to hear the work with the likes of a Natalie Dessay as Annette and someone capable of singing, say, Der Zwerg (i.e. a new David Kuebler) in the role of Faust.

The underlying production concept was vanity, in its baroque (or here neo-baroque) sense, symbolised above all by giant skulls, but drawing on a variety of “ghoulish” references: The Addams Family cum Tim Burton - white faces, sunken eyes, a red gash for a mouth, shaven heads with tousled topknots… and even a touch of Constructivism in some of the costumes.

It was an elaborate staging in several tableaux, too many to describe in full. It opened with Faust bloodily dissecting a realistic-looking corpse atop the first giant skull, this one with a snake crawling out of an eye socket. It continued with corpses in vertical glass tubes and hanging from the rafters, and then what looked like a highly stylised Bavarian wedding feast or Maypole dance (the Ländler), all in white, with exaggerated Oktoberfest costumes, doll-like, mechanical dancing (and lovemaking) and some of those frightening, shaggy creatures you find in country mythology in various countries. There was a funereal scene involving, this time, a black skull with elaborate silver trimmings, topped with a baroque crucifix; the princess wore a wide, Las Meninas type dress in deep plum silk, while the opera ballet, stiff in ruffs, performed a slow, eerie court dance below and giant silver reliquaries and other church ornaments filled the stage. The “ship” (to be wrecked) was a library manned by ghostly sailors in flapping trousers and cleverly enlarged by mirrors. Faust rode a skeletal horse round the stage. His comical shaggy dog was manned by two extras like a pantomime horse. Mephisto was sharply-suited in black, but with an all red face and head. You get the idea, and that’s about all I can recall… The odd thing was, it was hard to imagine the production dated from 2007. It had an “older” feel to it, 90s or even 80s.

Of the three of us there, one left at half time: “After a hard day at work the last thing I want is a course in philosophy.” The second said it wasn’t bad and that if I was staying he would. And I wanted to stay because, to be honest, I was quite enjoying it, dated though the production seemed and weak as were some of the singers. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, and if it was with a stronger cast, so much the better.

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