Charles Gounod needed a good editor. The third act of Faust — of five, clocking in at around three hours — really drags, especially. He’s been granted his dream girl, exchanged with the devil for his soul, and successfully wooed her — so quit goofing around and seal the deal. The foreplay is laborious.
It goes to the ambition of this little opera company that could. Faust, even in this English translation, is not for the faint of operatic heart, with its dense score and satanic setting. Melbourne Opera brings some light to the darkness — as it did, more fittingly, in its irresistible Merry Widow earlier this year — in a production of fine voice and stirring orchestration. Even if it falls under the lofty bar it sets itself.
Company stalwart David Rogers-Smith takes on the title role (Michael Lapina subs on June 26), the suicidal scholar who bargains with the man downstairs for a hedonistic flight of fancy. His Faust comes across as a hapless victim of the manipulative devil, rather than the dark-hearted protagonist of the German legend. His lithe tenor tones, too, are slighted by the booming bass of the horned one in contrast. Rogers-Smith seems to have mastered vocal technique but not intensity.
As the devilish Mephistopholes, Stephen Gallop (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i on June 26) is a welcome addition to the company with a wealth of international experience. His delivery was flawless and his comedic notes deft. Yet even he was upstaged by Phillip Calcagno as Valentin (Yang Liu on June 26), whose robust voice won bravos on opening night. His act two aria Avant de quitter ces lieux was sublime.
Plaudits, too, for Danielle Calder as Marguerite, the young love who falls under their spell. Her controlled pitch and supple vibrato — beautifully illustrated in the famed ‘Jewel Song’ (Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir) — makes her a talent to watch. (Lee Abrahmsen, who impressed in Widow, takes the role on June 26 and July 1.) Belinda Paterson, a sought-after mezzo-soprano for good reason, also delivered in the gender-bending role of Siebel.
It’s the choral numbers most remember from Gounod’s dashing score and the company’s amateur workforce is in fine voice. Their devotion — captured by the ABC’s Artscape program in April — is infectious. Director Hugh Halliday’s production succeeds simply in the soulful reverberation of sound around the acoustically-intimate Athenaeum auditorium. Conductor Greg Hocking summons a full-throttle performance with this magnificent score from his ragtag players in a crowded pit. For a group that plays so rarely together, they’ve never sounded better. (The hooded organist in the side-stage box was a nice touch.)
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Perhaps the company bites off more than it can chew in staging such grand opera galas. Some of the staging was clunky and the sets a little cheesy (with the exception of the garden scenes, which were prettily designed); same with the lighting. The choreography was flat-footed in parts and marks were missed; Calder’s body had to be rolled out of the way at one point to make way for a set piece. And while the costumes were effective, one of the chorus members rather embarrassingly forgot his tights. At least that’s what it looked like.
But it chews fast. And to offer an opera on this scale, of this spirit, with as much talent as it does, at an accessible price to a city that craves the form more than any other in the country, justifies its hard-earned position in the market.
Faust isn’t the finest opera you’ll see in Melbourne this year. And Gounod will test the patience of some. But it’s devilishly good fun.
The details: Faust plays the Athenaeum Theatre on June 21, 25 and 27 — tickets through Ticketmaster. The show has one performance at Alexander Theatre, Monash University on July 1 — tickets on the venue website.