Gounod - Faust

ONP Bastille, Wednesday October 19, 2011

Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Production: Jean-Louis Martinoty. Sets: Johan Engels. Costumes: Yan Tax. Lighting: Fabrice Kebour. Faust: Roberto Alagna. Méphistophélès: Paul Gay. Valentin: Tassis Christoyannis. Wagner: Alexandre Duhamel. Marguerite: Inva Mula. Siebel: Angélique Noldus. Dame Marthe: Marie-Ange Todorovitch. “Faust II”: Rémy Corazza.  Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

“Mr. Martinoty's solution is wretched excess: an immense library-cum-mad-science lab with a giant crucifix looming above, an older actor lip-synching Mr. Alagna's aged Faust, Mr. Alagna popping out of a space-age sphere in a gold T-shirt after the devilish deal, a huge chorus in a costume mashup that includes Enlightenment academics, Foreign Legionnaires, Second Empire soldiers, beauty contestants in bathing suits, peasant girls in Dutch bonnets, a humongous skeleton in a flurry of rainbow streamers, and carnival maskers part African-part Ensor. In the end, shedding her straightjacket, Marguerite shrugs two chains over her shoulders, tugs in a guillotine platform, runs onto it and ducks as the blade falls and a fake head shoots out.” (Wall Street Journal)

He forgot the Polytechniciens, the Daumier lawyers, the dancing couples with numbers on their backs and Mephisto’s sparkling red “Fellini Roma” bishop’s outfit during the church scene.

At the opening the set was actually very impressive: the library was a high, white, circular affair with galleries reached by two cast-iron spiral staircases; on the left, a massive bronze rhinoceros topped with a crystal obelisk containing Marguerite’s statue and, on the right, the large crystal globe from which Alagna would emerge, Rocky-Horror-like, in his golden tee-shirt. But that lip-synching idea was dreadful, causing Alagna’s voice to emerge with a nasal, hollow sound from inside the set.

The library could, as we saw later, split apart to allow crowds in and out. In the middle of the work, lit green, it housed Marguerite’s garden, which rose shakily out of the floor to reveal her iron bedstead, covered in ivy, under what looked like giant broccoli. After the birth of the baby (a doll swathed in white which she cradled ridiculously almost to the bitter end) the bookshelves were in ruins and the broccoli were blighted.

“I doubt this production will last 28 years unless, like the notoriously bad Ferrero Rocher ad, its nonsense goes on to acquire cult status. Highlights include rejuvenated Faust’s gold lamé T-shirt, a beauty pageant in the Kermesse, the ghoulish violinist who suddenly emerges from under the bed to accompany “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” and the grand finale that sees deranged Marguerite sprinting suicidally towards a guillotine. Her severed head jumps five yards (more audience mirth) and is promptly turned into a religious relic.” (Financial Times)

By Wednesday evening, the bouncing head had gone: Marguerite knelt symbolically behind the guillotine but no head shot out.

“Car cette production est indigne. Elle est à la fois d'un conventionnel crétin, d'une impudeur choquante et d'un manque total de poésie. Rien ne nous est épargné, des draps tachés du dépucelage de Marguerite, du meurtre du bâtard poignardé dans l'église, de la tête de la malheureuse roulant sous le couperet - puis portée en triomphe comme une relique dans une châsse.” (Le Monde)

"La mise en scène de Jean-Louis Martinoty n’aurait jamais dû être présentée à Bastille s’il y avait eu un directeur digne de ce nom." (Le Canard Enchaîné)

You get the idea. When the production wasn’t simply boring (in the middle) it was just silly. The acting was as conventional as could be – in other words, hardly acting at all. In the circumstances it’s hard to pass judgment on the singers’ performance. If it was in some ways lacklustre, mightn’t it be because, knowing they were participating in a monumental flop (monumental here being the operative word: as one reviewer said, the costs must have been "pharaonic" but the ideas were "mummified") and would face booing anyway, they basically just threw in the towel? Alagna started out fairly valiantly but was very discreet by the end and may, judging by a few hoarse sounds, have been nursing a cold. Inva Mula has, as a friend insisted, a very good voice; but she isn’t a natural actress (there were chuckles when she swanned around the stage swathed in her bedspread – her swanning is awkward); and she has an introverted stage personality that only works in tragic moments; no way does she radiate any joy in “Ah, je ris…”

Paul Gay made a young, tall, seductive Mephisto and sang with more enthusiasm. But he’s a bright baritone, not a bass, so the bottom notes were inaudible, while the very top had me thinking he’d do well to avoid singing the role often in large houses. Nicolas Joël is supposed to be good at choosing singers; why he couldn’t find a better Siebel for the Paris Opera is a mystery. Thank goodness we had Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Dame Marthe; and best of all, really (with the loudest, longest applause) Tassis Christoyannis, who, despite the production’s best efforts to make him look ridiculous in his foreign legion leather apron, simply sang, and with superb diction.

The orchestra was reasonably well behaved, unlike the chorus, ragged and often out of synch with the pit until they finally pulled their socks up towards the end.

First Mireille (“Putain, Mireille!” as a French friend kept repeating), then Francesca de Rimini, now Faust. Is Joël trying to prove something?.

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