Faust at the Sydney Opera House

Caught our first opera of the season, Faust, at the Sydney Opera House. Great evening out! The cast, headed by the young but fast rising American star tenor Michael Fabiano (of the 2007 The Audition fame), was uniformly strong. What a treat! With the exception of Fabiano and Teddy Tahu Rhodes whom we saw as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Lyric, we’d never heard of the rest of the singers before. But we will definitely be watching out for them now!

We enjoyed the visuals too – Jeff preferred this staging to the one we saw in Santa Fe, although it’s hard if not impossible to beat the electric atmosphere that stormy evening in Santa Fe, where the winds were howling and lightning flashing in the background of the backless theatre as Mephistopheles did his dramatic entrance, cape snapping in the wind.

Truth be told, I’ve always found the plot a little problematic. Why does Faust leave Maraguerite if he’s that in love with her? And how does she receive salvation for the murder of her baby in the end? Regardless, the music is its saving grace. I had to consciously stop myself from bobbing my head along at the many catchy arias and choruses.

SMH’s review here:

Faust review: Michael Fabiano leads a devilishly good ensemble
February 18, 2015
Harriet Cunningham

Sex and Religion. It’s a potent combination, and never more so than when amplified by confused 19th century morality and lurid iconography. Add in Gounod’s lush melodies and a no-expenses-spared staging – thank you, Opera Conference – and all you need to achieve ecstasy, be it religious and/or sexual, is a great ensemble cast. Happily, Opera Australia has one, and on opening night they delivered with the grand munificence of a jewel-bearing Mephistopheles.

Faust is a well-trodden tale: man gets old, gets bored, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a bit more fun. It’s all about pleasure now (and pain later, but let’s ignore that…). In Gounod’s version, based on Goethe’s play, Mephistopheles closes the deal by showing Faust a beautiful young girl – Marguerite – and promising she will be his.

The production’s original director, Sir David McVicar, serves up Gounod’s heavy-handed messages of guilt and redemption with an extravagant but deadpan theatricality – shafts of light, heavenly voices, wings and the ubiquitous organ solo. It’s almost absurd, at times, but then so is the diabolical side of the coin, complete with pitchforks, smoke and flames. What saves it from parody is the underlying setting, evoked by Charles Edwards’ painterly set design. We are in a theatre, Mephistopheles and Faust are in a theatre, church is theatre, and it’s all a grand and deftly handled performance, which invites not just ridicule but also reflection.

Theatricality is everywhere. The chorus revel in their crowd scenes, the audience revels in a picture-perfect ballet sequence plus a generous dose of dirty dancing. Revival choreographer Daphne Strothmann draws electric performances from the colourful troupe of showgirls, furies and demons.

Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire gives a pacy reading of Gounod’s expansive score, holding the many elements together with great facility and drawing a keen, urgent sound from the orchestra which will hopefully find greater focus during the season.

As for the voices, this is luxury casting indeed: Mephistopheles is a gift of a role, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes grabs it whole-heartedly. Physically and vocally, it’s a great match. Nicole Car continues to impress with her even yet passionate tone. Marguerite is a tough challenge, musically and dramatically, but she shatters those top notes with a dazzling but never harsh focus, managing to make grand opera intimate. Giorgio Caoduro, making his role debut as Valentin, stops time with his moving aria ‘Avant de quitter…’, a highlight of the show.

And then there’s American tenor Michael Fabiano as Faust. Fabiano is clearly headed for great things, a magnetic stage presence, convincing in all his myriad guises. His voice is huge and, if anything, it feels like he holds back, hitting the top notes with relative ease but not giving every note full weight. Vocally, his performance grows in intensity and richness towards the end of the opera, but even at the climax I suspect he has plenty in reserve. Watch this space.

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