Gounod: Faust at Irish National Opera | Live Review

Anthony Ogus
Monday, October 9, 2023

A dazzling example of music drama from the Irish National Opera's production of Gounod's Faust

****

The chorus of Faust at the Irish National Opera | Photo: Pat Redmond 

The Irish National Opera performs for the first time the old warhorse, Gounod’s Faust. To breathe fresh life into it, what should be the strategy? Assembling a strong cast is essential; and all of the singers engaged were certainly first-rate.

Dominating proceedings was Nicholas Brownlees as Mephistopheles: a massive, fruity bass, with a sense of sardonic humour and a capacity for inventive, spontaneous response to all that went on around him. In the title role Duke Kim greatly impressed, his silvery tenor maintaining a purity of tone throughout its range and, unlike many Fausts, projecting an intense character study on the stage. Jennifer Davis might have given Marguerite a more conventional profile, but her full-voiced, tender yet vulnerable musical interpretation gave much pleasure. After a rather unsteady rendering of 'Avant de quitter ces lieux', Gyula Nagy offered a forceful Valentin. Gemma Ni Bhriain was a touching Siebel, and Colette McGahon’s Marthe resisted cliché.

Duke Kim as Faust | Photo: Pat Redmond 

Elaine Kelly, leading the INO Orchestra, underpinned the performance with a thoroughly idiomatic rendering of Gounod’s score, tightly controlling both pace and dynamics, and there was a robust contribution from the excellent augmented chorus.

So far, so good, but, as regards staging, the piece poses a considerable challenge if the conventional mixture of Satanic mischief and sentimental innocence is to be avoided. Director Jack Furness and designer Francis O’Connor undoubtedly gambled by packing the production with social and political commentary. The context of Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles was a harsh, but also compelling, portrayal of 19th century industrial capitalism, with Marguerite’s exploitation and seduction resulting primarily from her poverty and working-class status.

Mephistopheles and Valentin in INO's production of Faust | Credit: Pat Redmond 

This approach generated some vivid visual images: tall chimneys belching forth smoke; factory furnaces being opened to reveal literally Satan’s hell. Overall-clad workers, both male and female, toiled with the machinery, while the top-hatted owners strode backward and forward overviewing their efforts. Militarism might have had an initial appeal for the workers but, as the pathos of the Soldiers’ Chorus masking coffins and wounded veterans revealed, war provided no release. Nor was religion forgotten. Victorian hypocritical attitudes to sex and society ironised the church scenes and Marguerite’s ascent to heaven. Dramatic communication was strengthened by bifurcating the role of Faust into a young singer and an actor (Nick Dunning) as the aged Doctor, facilitating the character’s internal self-questioning of his desires.

Some of the audience, accustomed to more conventional costume affairs, might have been somewhat perplexed by the innovatory qualities of this bold production; and, in the long evening, there were sequences when the interpretive perspective seemed to offer little that was novel or insightful; for example, the seduction scene and its associated comic antics in Act Three. But the sheer theatricality of the whole enterprise overcame any doubts. Most appropriately, this dazzling example of music drama was presented as part of Dublin’s annual Theatre Festival.

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