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Faust: eye- and ear-pleasing, but distant

In Catholic Limburg, I was taught catechism every week in primary school. "What are we here on earth for?", asked Mr pastor. With the whole class we droned out the answer: "To become happy here and in the hereafter." A similar question occurred to me last night during the performance of the opera Faust by Charles Gounod at The National Opera. "To what end do we go to the theatre?" For me, the answer is: "To be touched, purified, yes maybe even happy." Given the rave reviews, I expected that this would indeed be the case.

No expense was spared for this staging by Àlex Ollé. Alfons Flores' set is dazzling, with imposing descending and rising props that depict a dark forest, a church, a city, a whorehouse, hell or a prison as required. The different worlds are hidden behind a window/computer screen that is also raised and lowered again. This screen framed in ever-changing colours aptly depicts director Àlex Ollé's concept that Faust is a scientist trying to humanise a giant computer in order to find himself.

So the whole story of regaining his youth and the libido that comes with it ultimately plays out in Faust's head. No wonder all the women - except the innocent Marguerite - have gigantic enlarged breasts and buttocks. This also explains why his tormentor/servant Méphistophélès gradually starts to look more and more like him and even coincides with him at the end.

[Tweet "The set, often bathed in red light, caresses the eye, Gounod's music the ear"]

Just as the set, often bathed in red light, caresses the eye, Charles Gounod's music enchants the ear with its unprecedented rich splendour of colour. Marc Minkowski led the excellently playing Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra through the highly layered score with a sensitive but firm hand. At times we could hear rampant sounds of doom, then tender solos by strings or horns, at other times we imagined ourselves at a carnival with crazy party music. The National Opera Chorus was also on fine form, although in some mass scenes the rhythmic connection with the orchestra was not optimal.

This first staging of Faust by The National Opera in over forty years is a true spectacle, where, despite its length of three-and-a-half hours, you will not be bored for a second.

But.

Something was missing: the human aspect. Despite the undeniable commitment and quality of the singers, their characters hardly came alive. Only Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko gave his role of Méphistophélès some colour. Decked out as a biker, overaged hippie, false Christ and then as Faust's grey-eyed equal, he sang his sardonic lyrics with infectious abandon. He even got the occasional laugh.

American tenor Michael Fabiano, while having a voice like a bell, did not for a moment make it palpable why exactly he desired Marguerite so much. Russian soprano Irina Lungu, as Marguerite, also failed to convey the struggle with her feelings. Except for one moment of emotion during the love duet in the fatal night when Faust impregnates her. Besides Petrenko, Florian Sempey as Valentin, Marguerite's brother, and Marianne Crebassa as Siebel, her only real friend, were convincing. Perhaps because French is their mother tongue, as their pronunciation of it left a lot to be desired among their colleagues.

Àlex Ollé, renowned for his groundbreaking productions with the Spanish company La Fura dels Baus, has related to Faust on several occasions, saying he recognises himself in his "insatiable hunger for knowledge". Unfortunately, he did not convincingly convey that aspect. Moreover, the direction of the characters was so detached that Marguerite's tragedy did not come out either.

So to the question, "Was I touched, purified or happy by this performance?", the answer unfortunately has to be, "No".

Faust is still on show until 27 May

4 thoughts on “Faust: oog- en oorstrelend, maar afstandelijk”

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Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: https://www.boekenbestellen.nl/boek/een-os-op-het-dak/9789012345675 In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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