Take the greatest masterpiece of German literature, translate it and betray it by transforming its philosophical message into a sequence of beguiling arias and – voilà! – you have Gounod's Faust, one of the world's most popular operas. But it was not always so. Faust was created at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in 1859 with spoken dialogue. It met with critical interest, but not with public fervour. It would take several years to reach its “definitive” version at the Opéra, ten years later, with sung recitatives and a ballet. Born as an opéra-comiqueFaust became a grand opéra. Audiences were ecstatic, but the critics were lukewarm.

Alex Esposito (Méphistophélès), Iván Ayón Rivas (Faust) and Carmela Remigio (Marguerite)
© Michele Crosera

Jules Barbier and Michel Carré's libretto is structured in five acts – the third, the scene in the garden and the love duet, is the pivotal one, the second act presents the meeting of the lovers, the fourth the separation, all set between two acts that serve as prologue and epilogue. The work joins those by Berlioz (La Damnation de Faust, 1846), Boito (Mefistofele, 1868) and Busoni (Doktor Faust, 1924) also inspired by Goethe, but here the religious theme is predominant, so much so that Joan Antón Rechi, who is now directing it at La Fenice, transforms the Venetian theatre into a cathedral, with church pews instead of theatre seats and the audience in the boxes and galleries. The floor is initially covered by a cloth which, when removed, shows a mirrored floor reflecting the tiers of boxes and the lights from the sconces and the large glass chandelier that shine on the 18th-century theatre – completing its transformation into a ballroom for the waltz scene.

© Michele Crosera

It is set at the time of composition, with women in big skirts and men in military uniforms or double-breasted topcoats. The action takes place both in the stalls and on the stage: the sanitary distancing here becomes an effective dramaturgical choice by the Andorran, who does not renounce some directorial quirks such as the moving of the pews by two figures in black in a long silence marked only by their footsteps on the floor, or the gag of the photograph of the chorus lined up on stage for "Gloire immortelle", or the return of Valentin's ghost, dragging Marguerite away by her feet. But on the whole, it is an intelligent, dazzling production that reintroduces the splendour of grand opéra in a modern way, with lively acting and very effective action. Rechi also designed the costumes, while the beautiful effect of the light filtering through an imaginary church rose window was by lighting designer Fabio Berettin.

Frédéric Chaslin is an expert in French music and gave a unified vision of the complexity of Faust, despite the fragmentary nature of the musical numbers with their astonishing melodic and instrumental richness. In the programme notes, the Parisian conductor (who is also a composer, pianist and writer) refers to Mahler as the only musician to have truly understood the essence of Goethe's work in his Eighth Symphony. In retrospect, these considerations came to mind after listening to some moments in the finale of Act 3 that actually recalled atmospheres that, for us, would be reminiscent of Mahler's music.

Carmela Remigio (Marguerite), Alex Esposito (Méphistophélès) and Iván Ayón Rivas (Faust)
© Michele Crosera

The dramatic weight of Gounod's Faust slides into the female character of Marguerite, here soprano Carmela Remigio, a singer with temperament but little suited to the part: she was justifiably expressive but at the expense of a jagged vocal line, with unnatural register jumps, unclear diction and a general lack of brilliance, evident in her Jewel Song. Iván Ayón Rivas expressed himself in the title role with elegant phrasing and excellent mezza voci, but he always seemed to be pawing at high notes, which did arrive brightly, but were often excessive. Armando Noguera (Valentin) displayed great stage presence but also a strange emission in the lower register, while Paola Gardina, a delightful Siébel, was excellent and sensitive.

Iván Ayón Rivas (Faust) and Alex Esposito (Méphistophélès)
© Michele Crosera

The real sensation of the evening was Alex Esposito, who gave an excellent interpretation of Méphistophélès. The director turned him into a magician/hypnotist in top hat and tails, filling the stage with his presence even before the opera began, when he sat motionless on the last pew of Rechi's imagined church. From that moment, he does not have a moment's rest: we see him leap nimbly over the pews, then disappear and quickly reappear on the stage, confronting characters, subjugating them with his mind, always as invisible. He is seen only by those who have done evil – like Marguerite after the murder of her newborn child, when she clings to him instead of the faithless Faust. With this bass-baritone from Bergamo, there is no distinction between singing and acting. We marvelled at his vocal projection, his enunciation, carving the words without being cloying, and he displayed almost perfect diction. The scene of Méphistophélès' mocking serenade brought together the director's genius and Esposito's fine acting: as in a café chantant gig framed by a spotlight, he demonstrated his extraordinary theatrical talents and the audience compensated him with open applause and final cheers. This time, Gounod's Faust should have been titled Méphistophélès...