Gounod’s Faust is one of the many musical translations of Goethe’s masterpiece, perhaps the one which enjoyed the greatest popularity, due, among other things, to the beautiful melodies teeming throughout, and the grand opera scenes added in 1869, for the Opéra de Paris debut. The Teatro La Fenice production by Joan Anton Rechi was presented last year in a completely different version, using the whole orchestra stalls as a stage, while this year it is performed in its traditional version on stage, with sets comprised of a scaffolding structure representing a movie set, or any of the other buildings mentioned in the plot.

Alex Esposito (Méphistophélès)
© Michele Crosera

Gounod infused the story with a deep religious sentiment, much more prominent than in Goethe’s original text. The main theme is a reflection on sin and God’s forgiveness. This key element got all but lost in Rechi’s production, where Faust is an ageing movie star, and Méphistophélès a film director promising to restore his former glory (Marguerite is a seamstress in the movie production). Moving such a story to modern times makes the whole premise fall apart: having a child outside of wedlock is not a tragedy nowadays, certainly not to the point of your brother getting killed in a duel over it. The “explanation” offered was an incestuous feeling of Valentin towards Marguerite, which honestly seemed over the top and out of place.

Also, Gounod and his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré’s careful, profound reflection on sin, on how the devil tempts and leads us astray, went lost in this reading where, for example, Méphistophélès is the one who ends up killing Valentin in the duel instead of Faust. In Catholic catechesis the devil pushes and allures us to sin, so that we will be part of his realm when we die; if he performs the evil deeds in our place, the whole theological structure falls apart. The finale was particularly incomprehensible, with Marguerite, in her delusion, mixing up Faust and Méphistophélès, who pushes her to suicide. So she does not refuse the devil in her last moments which, once again, makes her salvation senseless from a Catholic – and logical – point of view.

Alex Esposito (Méphistophélès) and Paola Gardina (Siébel)
© Michele Crosera

The musical production was definitely more successful, with conductor Frédéric Chaslin showing a deep understanding of Gounod’s musical language in a confident reading of the score. The Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice had a heavier sound than expected at times, lacking a transparency that the lyrical moments would suggest, but it was a successful performance, with the chorus (very well prepared by Claudio Marino Moretti) extremely enjoyable, albeit still hindered by face masks, singing with great precision and passion.

As Méphistophélès, Alex Esposito stole the show with his innate sense of drama. He filled the stage with his presence, as a perfect director, manipulating everybody to his purposes. He gave an appreciated, bold interpretation during one of the most successful scenes of this production: the Walpurgis Night Sabbath was presented as a wild party, where Faust was seduced by movie stars past and present (Marilyn Monroe in the pink dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Uma Thurman in the yellow suit from Kill Bill, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, etc.). Esposito showed up with remarkable panache in high heels, fishnet stay-up stockings, sequin romper and long cigarette holder – quite a sight! Vocally, his performance was equally impressive, both in the flashy, exuberant numbers – “Le Veau d’or” was as precise as it was explosive – and in the more meditative, deeper moments. Never losing his elegance, his bass-baritone expressed all the details of the devil’s character; his roaring, evil laughter will stay with me.

Carmela Remigio (Marguerite) and Iván Ayón Rivas (Faust)
© Michele Crosera

Doctor Faust was Ivan Ayon Rivas, whose tenor was generous and enthusiastic, if perhaps, at times, lacking some delicacy and elegance. He gave a committed interpretation, his high notes secure and bright; the love-duet with Marguerite was particularly effective. Carmela Remigio’s warm soprano gave Marguerite all the depth of the character, enlivening the young girl in all her contradictory feelings. The Jewel Song may have lacked some brilliance in timbre, but the result was satisfactory, the high notes shiny and beautiful. She gave her best in the following love scene, with the desperation, the madness.

Paola Gardina (Siébel), Alex Esposito (Méphistophélès) and Iván Ayón Rivas (Faust)
© Michele Crosera

Valentin, Marguerite’s brother was Armando Noguera, his baritone was strong and solid; he gave an emotional interpretation of the desperate brother, deeply caring for his sister (probably too much) and unable to forgive her. Paola Gardina, in the breeches role of Siébel, was charming as the young boy in love with Marguerite: her aria “Faites-lui mes aveux” was particularly sweet, her excited, fluttering mezzo perfect for the part. The cast was completed by William Corrò as Wagner and Julie Mellor as Marthe Schwertlein, who both added to the success of the performance.