Goethe wanted a Mozart, but he got Gounod. The author of Faust felt that Mozart (who long predeceased the completion even of Part 1 of his vast two-part poetic drama) would have been the ideal person to set it to music. Presumably Goethe was thinking of Don Giovanni, an opera which culminates in the title character being carried off to hell by a supernatural visitant, even though Faust ends with the unexpected salvation of both heroine and, later on, the hero. With both works in the current Opera Australia season in productions by Sir David McVicar, comparisons were never easier for Sydney audiences.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Méphistophélès) © Prudence Upton
Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Méphistophélès)
© Prudence Upton

As the musicologist Steven Huebner drily puts it, “Goethe’s play is best not taken into account in critical assessments of Gounod’s opera as a piece of music theatre”. Gone, indeed, are many crucial elements, including the fact that Faust will only lose the bet with the devil if he ever is satisfied with his lot. Like most others, Gounod’s librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré focussed solely on Part 1, which contains the story of Faust and Gretchen. Faust’s seduction and abandonment of the latter becomes the core event of the opera plot.

Where the play begins with a series of prologues, including a bet between God and the devil as to whether Faust can be corrupted, Gounod’s opening prelude explores a gloomy palette, indicative of the title character’s tortured state of mind at the start of Act 1. McVicar reimagines this to show us Méphistophélès, drinking alone, before his acolytes bring him his fallen wings. Once the music turned to the major, the scene shifted to a decrepit Faust, whose opening number revealed the contrasting vigour of Ivan Magrì’s voice.

Irina Lungu (Marguerite) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Méphistophélès) © Prudence Upton
Irina Lungu (Marguerite) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Méphistophélès)
© Prudence Upton

As Faust calls on Satan, Teddy Tahu Rhodes enters through the floor, theatrically coughing at the abundance of ‘smoke’ (dry ice). Faust’s existential angst is reduced to a desire to get laid (“À moi les plaisirs”), and the magical transformation into his younger self is deftly accomplished by removing beard and wig when his back is turned. The subsequent duet revealed the two male leads to be well-matched, with Tahu Rhodes’s raw power complementing Magrì’s cut.

The transition to the town square at the start of Act 2 is seamless, with the lights going up on the upstage area to reveal French flags in abundance and a big crucifix in the centre. Charles Edwards’s set design allows for many possible configurations: on the right, an organ loft and upstage a series of Gothic arches are useful in the church scenes, opposite which are house fronts for outdoor scenes and near the footlights, two tiers of opera boxes. The latter are symptomatic of a recurrent metathetrical element, first apparent in the ingenious setting of the famous waltz in the ‘Cabaret de l’Enfer’, in which Marguerite is first introduced as a demure waitress.

<i>Faust</i> © Prudence Upton
Faust
© Prudence Upton

Act 3, the heart of the opera in every sense, suffers by coming towards the end of a long first half. Irina Lungu’s rendition of the jewel song wasn’t show-stopping, and the potentially sublime love duet was less gripping than the amusing antics between Méphistophélès and Marthe (the always impressive Dominica Matthews).

Theatrical ingenuities continue after the interval, the best coups involving Tahu Rhodes. A reordered and shortened Act 4 openes with the Cathedral scene, with a group of statues centre stage. The statue of Jesus turns to reveal a disguised Méphistophélès, who torments the distraught Marguerite. The famous soldier’s chorus is sung by wounded soldiers, a bitter visual contradiction of the military glory proclaimed in the rousing number. In Act 5, the Walpurgisnacht scene opens with the presentation of famous queens and courtesans from history, upstaged by Tahu Rhodes dropping his cloak to reveal that he is in drag. Lastly, the final redemption of Gretchen is announced by a heavenly chorus placed in the theatre itself, a sudden blast of surround sound which beautifully complements the divine intrusion into the story.

Dancers in Opera Australia's production of <i>Faust </i> © Prudence Upton
Dancers in Opera Australia's production of Faust
© Prudence Upton

Among the supporting cast, Michael Honeyman made a sympathetic impression as Valentin (although improbably active after being fatally stabbed) and Anna Dowsley was a sweet-voiced Siébel. The chorus, whether on stage or behind the scenes, was in excellent form, with the hushed reaction to Valentin’s death in Act 4 genuinely thrilling. The musicians under Lorenzo Passerini were also outstanding, whether in the many solos or the crisp tutti playing at the start of Act 5. And a big shout-out to the dancers: their flamboyant costumes in Act 2 may have been jarringly out of keeping with the historical setting, but whether as writhing diabolical adjuncts or classical ballerinas they contributed hugely to a thoroughly well-worked show.

****1