For the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Gounod (1818-1893), the Opera of Monte-Carlo programmed Faust, one of the composer’s most enduring works. First performed in 1859 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris with spoken dialogues rather than recitatives, the work was revised for its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1869. Already in 1872, the work was staged in Monte-Carlo, where it has been performed regularly ever since. The present production of Faust is the first in Monte-Carlo since the 2005 David McVicar staging, conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus, which used the original Theâtre Lyrique version of 1859.
The current production did not take any risks by presenting alternative versions of the opera, or iconoclastic staging. It used the authoritative 1869 version with sung recitatives, and staging by Nicolas Joël, whose Faust has been performed with great acclaim and all over the world for the last twenty years. The distribution was stellar: Joseph Calleja (Faust), Marina Rebeka (Marguerite) and Paul Gay (Mephistopheles).
Nicolas Joel and his team of Ezio Frigerio (sets), Franca Squarciapino (costumes) and Vinicio Cheli (lights) place the action not in the Middle Ages, as in Goethe’s original, but rather in Gounod’s time, to more clearly underscore the oppressive moral weight imposed by church and state in the Second Empire. An enormous organ occupying the back of the stage, illuminated to varying degrees in different scenes, symbolized this repressive order. Very few other sets were added: a couch-sized medieval book in the prologue, a barrel for the tavern, a bench for the garden, a pagan statue for Walpurgis Night and Marguerite’s child’s white coffin for the prison scene.
This production shows religion to be fashioned by men to impose order and subjugate others. Faust can distance himself from religion only by entirely rejecting it, but as a result he loses the woman he loves and wants to save. Marguerite, a happy young woman simply wanting to love Faust, is rejected by society when she gets pregnant out of wedlock; she is denied even the comfort of religion. The scene in the church where she tries to pray, but is prevented by Mephistopheles, the organist of hell, is one of the several gripping moments of this production. Valentin’s curse on Marguerite, which leads her to lose all reason, is shown to be motivated by his misplaced sense of honor. In this production, the final chorus is sung not by a celestial choir, but by a human one composed of neighbors who bring to the tortured Marguerite a white lily, symbolizing her redemption.
The Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja’s much-anticipated performance of the role of Faust marked his debut at the Opera of Monte-Carlo. He lived up to his reputation as a virtuosic singer with an impressive vocal range and powerful and luminous voice, although somewhat marred by his unvarying use of a rapid vibrato. Calleja leaves the listener hungry for a greater nuances of dynamic expression, and some of his diminuendi suffered from a thinning of the tone quality. His diction in French was poor, which is distracting to a French audience. Moreover, his acting seemed rather bland, even if one could see it as an acceptable interpretation of Faust the antihero, a mere puppet in the hands of Mephistopheles.
Paul Gay’s Mephistopheles is anything but bland. This French bass has made Mephistopheles his signature role in the last few years, and rightly so. Closer to a seductive and jubilant Don Giovanni than to a terrifying demon, he takes over the stage with vitality and energy. His nuanced acting shows him in turn dramatic or malicious, joking or manipulative. With the innate elegance of a Thomas Hampson, Gay sings with an impeccable diction and clear and powerful voice, equally at ease in the swaggering bacchanal of Act II, “Le Veau d’or est toujours debout,” and the more sensual “Hymne à la nuit” of Act III. Elegant, light-hearted, musical and entertaining, he steals the show.
Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka is one of today’s rising opera stars and, like Joseph Calleja, makes her debut at the Opera of Monte Carlo this season, following critically acclaimed performances as Marguerite at the Latvian National Opera (Riga) and a replacement of Anna Netrebko in La Traviata at the Paris Opera last January. Rebeka is a great Marguerite, both vocally and scenically, and with excellent French diction. An accomplished actress, she creates a credible and moving character, which like Paul Gay’s Mephistopheles, gives the opera greater depth and cohesion. She succeeds in giving fresh meaning to some of the opera’s most hackneyed tunes. Her moving interpretation of the ballad “Le roi Thulé” (Act III), carried by the beautiful sounds of the orchestra depicts Marguerite as a simple young girl fed by chivalry romance. In her delicate yet thrilling interpretation of the “Air des bijoux” (also Act III), Rebeka almost makes us forget that this is a piece of great vocal virtuosity, in which her beautiful voice must be capable of effortlessly soaring above the orchestral mass. In Acts IV and V, she passes with subtle gradations from innocence to passion. Her voice reaches incredible dramatic intensity in the church scene and in her final invocations to god and the angels.
The secondary roles are interpreted masterfully, especially by baritone Lionel Lhote (Valentin), whose Act II aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux” demonstrated a wide expressive range. Mezzo sopranos Héloïse Mas (Siebel), and Christine Solhosse (dame Marthe) were convincing, both vocally and dramatically.
The choir of the Opera of Monte Carlo, superbly prepared by Stefano Visconti, is the last great actor of this opera, placed sometimes behind the scenes as in the distant call of spring of Act I, or under the organ in Act IV when it renders the sulphurous roar of hell, but most often in full view and performing the roles traditionally imparted to the ballet, as in the martial scenes or the waltz.
French conductor Laurent Campellone’s lively reading had some particularly inspired moments, such as the prison scene or the famous Walpurgis Night. He was always able to maintain a sense of forward drive, especially in the soldiers’ chorus in Act IV. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo was in excellent form; in the orchestral prelude to Act I, the violas and celli provided an intensely dark texture that set the mood for the entire performance.
On this Sunday afternoon performance of 26 March 2018, the Salle Garnier was brimming with people eager to hear this favorite of the French repertoire. They were not disappointed, for this was an unforgettable performance, both musically and theatrically.
Direction musicale Laurent Campellone
Mise en scène Nicolas Joël
Décors Ezio Frigerio
Costumes Franca Squarciapino
Lumières Vinicio Cheli
Chef de choeur Stefano Visconti
Le Docteur Faust Joseph Calleja
Marguerite Marina Rebeka
Méphistophélès Paul Gay
Valentin Lionel Lhote
Siebel Héloïse Mas
Dame Marthe Christine Solhosse
Wagner Gabriele Ribis
CHOEUR DE L’OPÉRA DE MONTE-CARLO
ORCHESTRE PHILHARMONIQUE DE MONTE-CARLO