David McVicar’s Faust was back on the Royal Opera stage, and in rather good form. Gothic backdrops, a scene in the Cabaret L’Enfer, the Les Mis-style tricolore-waving crowd number, and Méphistophélès rocking up in a black diamanté-encrusted ball gown, all added to the fun. Throw in a few acrobatic shirtless demons for Méphistophélès’ retinue from the standard McVicar toolbox – as well as his characteristic concern for acting details, nicely recreated by revival director Bruno Ravella – and a long evening wasn’t quite as long as expected.
Maurizio Benini whipped some bite into the orchestral sound, which cut effectively through the Gounod treacle, but he still allowed some space for sentiment, most notably in the long Act 3 love scene. That and the succeeding madness were when Alexia Voulgaridou was at her most effective. She had a lovely, warm tone, especially in her middle voice, but her top was weaker, and that hadn’t quite brought off the glitter of the Jewel Song. She was a ‘contained’ actress, but rose to the drama of later acts as things heated up after the interval, with the emphatic closing trio putting the pressure back on her voice again.
Opposite her there was no shortage of stentorian power from Joseph Calleja as Faust. Just as things were feeling a bit all-on-a-same-level, both for volume and emotion, he spun out a beautifully controlled diminuendo during Salut demeure, chaste et pure that suddenly made one listen afresh. It was thrilling singing, perfectly suited to the gutsy mid-nineteenth century sound.
Bryn Terfel was sounding rather dry of voice and got into a bit of difficulty towards the end of the first half, but rallied remarkably in the penultimate acts to regain some of his customary vocal bloom. As ever, the mischievous comedy, undercut with a frisson of threat, made his Méphistophélès the lynchpin of the drama. Keenlyside sang with a dangerous mixture of beautiful tone and threatening power, which made the public showdown with Marguerite very believable, as well as grippingly painful to watch. The distress of Renata Pokupić’s touching and pure-toned Siébel had a similar impact.
There is little of any subtlety in Gounod’s telling of this much-told story, but with the right performance it carries you along, which happily was the case on Monday night.