So often derided, Gounod’s old warhorse is proving an ideal vehicle for star performances at the Royal Opera. The four principal singers of the latest revival, which opened on Sunday afternoon, yield little or nothing to the quartet who sang when this production was new in 2004.
The producer, David McVicar, delivers a traditional show at heart. There is an overall concept – Faust represents the aged Gounod, torn between the theatre and the church, and witnessing the closing years of the Second Empire in France – but it feels lazily worked out and rather too susceptible to kitsch. Bring on the semi-naked devils and the cross-dressing Méphistophélès and the camp quota ticks up pretty high.
Here, though, is a very handsome backdrop for the singers to show what they can do. From the moment Vittorio Grigolo’s Faust casts off his grey wig and professorial cloak, it is clear that he intends to make the most of the opportunity. Grigolo is the new white hope among young Italian tenors and it is easy to see why. As the rejuvenated Faust, he exudes both puppy-dog enthusiasm and the know-how to get his star quality to shine. Just occasionally he over-sings. But for most of the opera, Grigolo makes sure his bright, Italianate self-confidence is shaded with subtle French variety and impeccable artistry.
The other three principals are hardly less good. Angela Gheorghiu, who sang a lyrically beautiful Marguerite in 2004, looks and sounds not a day older. Dmitri Hvorostovsky gives Valentin everything he has and, though the aria lacked Gallic grace, his singing carried quite a punch. Also new is the Méphistophélès, leading German bass René Pape, who is seen too rarely in London. Hearing his majestic voice in a major role here is a great pleasure, while his playing of the character makes up in authority what it lacks in saturnine charisma.
With Michèle Losier as a bright-voiced Siébel and the conductor, Evelino Pidò, stiffening Gounod’s music with a strong Italian backbone, this was high quality all round. Comparisons are not only with 2004. Opera-goers whose memories stretch back to Faust in 1977, and the unforgettable line-up of Freni, Kraus, Allen and Ghiaurov, may well rank 2011 as an equally fine vintage.