GOUNOD Faust (Vienna Phil, Pérez)
‘Death is nothingness’, sings Iago at the end of his Credo in Verdi’s Otello. It could be the motto for Reinhard von der Thannen’s production of Gounod’s Faust, premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2016 and now released on DVD and Blu‑ray. Thannen’s is a bleak view of the world, set in clinical white and featuring a gigantic oval-shaped sculpted ‘eye’ which looms over everything. The word ‘Rien!’ (Faust’s first utterance) hangs over the stage at the beginning, returning at the close when the lifeless body of Marguerite is left alone, abandoned by Faust, Méphistophélès and all. Death is nothingness.
Thannen’s direction is clearly influenced by Hans Neuenfels, with whom he has collaborated with many times as stage designer, especially the notorious, rat-infested Lohengrin at Bayreuth. After making their pact, Méphistophélès becomes Faust’s alter ego, each appearing in identical boulevardier outfits. The Philharmonia Chor Wien are kitted out in yellowing Pierrot-type bodysuits and Marguerite is seduced in a white military hospital style bed. Méphistophélès and Faust wheel around a model church tower and town house, and a huge daisy (the German ‘Margerite’ = daisy) hangs from the flies in Act 4, where an enormous metal skeleton appears to accompany the soldiers’ chorus. Redemption is in short supply for Marguerite as clown-angels roll giant black roulette balls slowly around her cell … it seems her luck (if she ever had any) has run out. The Walpurgis Night scene is cut, so we lose the ballet.
It’s a staging loaded with symbolism which isn’t always immediately obvious. The festival programme included a nine-page note to discuss the director’s concept, reprinted here in EuroArts’ booklet. Therefore, you can learn that the organ pipes descending to spear the stage and entrap Marguerite are, apparently, ‘Almighty God in the form of a pin cushion’. If directors need nine pages of programme notes to explain their concept, what hope has the casual viewer of penetrating their ideas?
Thankfully, musical standards are high, the Wiener Philharmoniker playing urgently for Argentinian conductor Alejo Pérez. He has a fine cast at his disposal, headed by Piotr Beczała in pristine voice as Faust, his beautifully smooth tenor perfect for French repertoire. Ildar Abdrazakov lacks a little of the devilish bass darkness as Méphistophélès but sounds glorious and free in his upper register; his serenade ‘Vous qui fates l’endormie’ is the performance’s high point. Maria Agresta sings an affecting Marguerite, aided by crystal pianissimos, although her Jewel Song lacks – dare one say it – a little sparkle and vivacity. Alexey Markov’s Slavic vowels don’t make him a natural Valentin but there’s no denying his juicy baritone, while Tara Erraught is a spunky Siébel.