Devil-may-care: Erwin Schrott as Méphistophélès
Devil-may-care: Erwin Schrott as Méphistophélès © Tristram Kenton

The morality tale of Faust’s pact with the devil is open to endless interpretations. Since 2004, the Royal Opera has presented Gounod’s five-act, Parisian grand opera in a suitably opulent production, which manages to be traditional in look, while subversive in a high-camp, Gothic style.

Each time David McVicar’s production has been revived, it has been a showcase for a trio of leading singers. That was the intention on this occasion, too, but a combination of ailments and bad luck put a spanner in the works, proving the devil can still cast a malign spell.

The immediate result of this was that only Michael Fabiano’s Faust of the central three was the planned singer in good health. From the moment he was rejuvenated by the devil’s elixir of youth, Fabiano sang with an impressively clear, bright, vital presence. He has tended to oversing in the past, but his Faust found a new strain of poetry, serenading Marguerite with the tenderest of strains.

The illusion that Méphistophélès conjures of Faust’s beloved turned out to be just that. Two Marguerites fell ill in quick succession and German soprano Mandy Fredrich flew in as replacement with just an hour to spare, her silvery voice and a judicious balance of grace and vigour fitting the bill nicely. Whatever bug was going round, Erwin Schrott had caught it as well and he was more subdued than usual, though his Méphistophélès did a nice line in devil-may-care sangfroid and Schrott’s saturnine bass power revived as the evening went on.

David McVicar's production is Victorian in its setting
David McVicar's production is Victorian in its setting

As McVicar sees it, Méphistophélès is the theatre impresario from hell. The opera’s driving force, he stages a series of infernal coups de théâtre, including a boisterous “Cabaret d’enfer” and a ballet that provides a chilling twist when a pregnant Marguerite appears like a nightmare vision to Faust. It is all lavish, fustily Victorian in its period setting, but garishly alive.

There is a strongly sung Valentin from Stéphane Degout and Marta Fontanals-Simmons makes a lively Siébel. Carole Wilson is a hoot in the small role of Marthe. Dan Ettinger conducts the performance with flair. If Méphistophélès lifts his curse and everybody gets back to health, this could be a devil of a show.


To May 6, roh.org.uk

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