Faust as you have never seen it before

The 2016 Salzburg recording of Gounod’s Faust is challenging.  Perhaps the nine pages of the booklet given over to a concept discussion with the directors should have given me sufficient warning that this was not going to be Faust à la Met.  It’s not.  It’s extremely complex and I’m not sure I fully understand it or whether all the ideas work but I did find it fascinating visually and dramatically, and musically it’s top notch.  That said, traditionalists can save themselves a trip to the ER by walking away now.

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“The work has no moral.  The mob has no thought for its victims and only exacerbates their wounds.”  I think that may be the key couple of sentences from the concept discussion.  That, and the projection of “Rien” at both the beginning and end of the opera.  This is essentially Faust as nihilism.  We are each alone or we are part of an unfeeling, amoral mob.  There is no alternative.  Faust, Marguerite, even Mephistopheles are powerless against the collective and its crassness.  How do the von der Thannens bring this out on stage?

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It’s partly through massive and quite abstract sets, often beautifully lit. It’s partly the use of a large chorus, dancers and extras in carefully choreographed regimentation and always in some variant of “clown”.  There are several points where this is clear.  In Act 2 “clown soldiers” appear with steel helmets and rifles which are carefully polished by the lady clowns of the chorus.  They reappear in a parody of military evolutions in Act 4 accompanied by a giant metal skeleton.  Then there is Act 5.  The whole Walpurgis night episode is gone.  We cut from the church scene to a peculiar sequence with clowns rolling giant black balls around the stage to Marguerite in her cell.  The big trio is sung and then Marguerite is mobbed by the clown angels.  They withdraw to leave her alone sprawled on the stage.  Faust and Méphistophélès are nowhere to be seen.  “Rien” and then rien. Tout.  Fini!

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Along the way there are a lot of really deft touches.  Completely bald Faust in Act 1 is transformed into a Feydeauesque boulevardier (with a striking resemblance to Brett Polegato).  Valentin is spectacularly Teutonic.  The Golden Calf scene features a human mannequin that is really disturbing.  Valentin’s death is shockingly brutal.  And so on.  It’s hard to take ones eye off even when it’s hard to unpack.  The choreography by Giorgio Madia is also a key element here and it’s well executed by an excellent group of dancers.

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The performances are of a very high order.  Ildar Abdrazakov is a much more menacing Méphistophélès here than in his Turin performance but he’s still top notch in every way.  Piotr Beczala is pretty much an ideal Faust.  He has a really beautiful voice which is what this production needs.  In so many places it’s the contrast between the sheer beauty of the music and the bleakness of the dramaturgy that takes this up a notch.  The same can be said of Maria Agresta’s Marguerite.  She sings the Thule and jewel arias in a classically beautiful way but caps this by singing “Anges pur” almost as a chilling song of defiance.  One thing that helps make the music; both solo and choral, work so well is that the production respects the “numbers” nature of the score and is all the more effective for it.

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Most major houses could/would put on an impressive cast in these three leading roles.  Where Salzburg really scores is in being able to field almost equally excellent singers in the supporting roles.  Alexey Markov’s Valentin blew me away with top notch acting and powerful idiomatic singing.  Tara Erraught as a bearded Siébel is not far behind and the Marthe of Marie-Ange Todorovitch and the Wagner of Paolo Rumetz are quite distinguished.  The Philharmonia Chor Vienna have a lot to do and do it exceptionally well.  Add to that the Vienna Philharmonic and fine conducting from Alejo Pérez and it all adds up to great music making, but also music making in support of the production concept.  Too many conductors either don’t or don’t want to get that.

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Tiziano Mancini does a great job of filming this production.  Angles and shot choices are judicious and I felt it went as far as it reasonably could to help me see the production as the stage directors intended.  On Blu-ray the picture is first class and so is the DTS-HD Master Audio sound.  There are no extras on the disk but the booklet has a track listing and synopsis (for once for the opera as actually staged!) and the aforementioned concept discussion.  Subtitle options are English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

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So, not for traditionalists but this production is pretty coherent and will probably make even more sense on a second viewing.  Musically and technically it’s top notch.

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The DVD and Blu-ray are scheduled for release on July 14th 2017 but are available for pre-order at most outlets.

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