A single set is the norm at Savonlinna Opera Festival, which takes place in a castle courtyard and has no flies, little stage technology, and no curtain. Hence productions here, on the evidence of the three I have now seen, must make a virtue out of necessity. For Vilppu Kiljunen’s production of Faust, the set is dominated by a giant bird’s wing, like one of Leonardo’s drawings, hung high upon a metal structure like an early flying machine. It suggests man’s attempt to conquer nature, and take flight from his earthbound existence. Below it three dancers, garbed in white as if in an asylum, writhe and struggle alongside open graves, while a fourth figure is suspended over a cauldron. Are we in hell, witnessing some Mephistophelean tortures? No, for Faust enters, clearly dissatisfied with the progress of these experiments. Cursing science and faith, he seeks infernal guidance. Méphistophélès appears, a pact is made, and we are launched upon an ancient tale from the 16th century, unfold in a building from the 15th century – Olavinlinna castle.

<i>Faust</i> at Savonlinna © Valtteri Hirvonen
Faust at Savonlinna
© Valtteri Hirvonen

That giant wing later forms a screen on which appropriate images, angelic or demonic, are projected, for Savolinna’s restrictions encourage creative use of lighting and projected images. A real fortress is an ideal world for this opera’s violent struggle for the soul of man, though Gounod’s version focusses more on that of a woman, Marguerite. The effect of her entrance, high above the stage through one of the castle’s vast timbered doors, in a simple medieval dress, was uncanny. Had she fallen asleep here in about 1490? The Soldiers’ Chorus enters through the stalls, clattering to the stage in full armour, and Marguerite is redeemed by the prayers of a large chorus in white as she walks to her salvation through that same ancient door, though which billows plenty of backlit white smoke – this is not a production afraid of a cliché if it can work effectively in this unique space.

Marjukka Tepponen (Marguerite, alternative cast) © Soila Puurtinen
Marjukka Tepponen (Marguerite, alternative cast)
© Soila Puurtinen

Other costumes vary in time. Faust himself is contemporary casual, Méphistophélès initially sports a white suit, but with a white cloak. Marthe, the amorous widow who flirts with the devil, is clad in a design straight from a richly decorated medieval manuscript. Valentin conducts the Soldiers’ Chorus wearing a prosthetic leg, a reminder that they are just back from war. We rarely stray far from the Grand Guignol aspects of the tale. There are more open graves, and blood and gore, as Marguerite suffers for her sins, as she knew she would, being (essentially) a good Catholic girl from 19th-century France. But not many even of those ever feared that the devil himself would come and lift up her dress, rip her unborn babe from her womb, and run off guffawing and slavering while tasting that infant flesh. (At least there were no themed menus in the delightful lakeside restaurants afterwards.)

The singers were mostly masters of their parts. Faust himself (Diego Silva) began coolly as if measuring the reach of a smallish voice in a big auditorium, but later warmed to his task, especially with an account of “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” that was, well, chaste and pure. Valentin’s similarly tender “Avant de quitter ces lieux” might be what Wagner meant in dismissing Gounod’s “face-powder music” but it works when sung as well as it was by Clemens Unterreiner. Tuomo Pursio as Méphistophélès sometimes overdid it – it must be quite a challenge to get the tone right for the part, in every sense. He might have made a more sinister effect at times if he took better care of the musical line, and let the text and notes do some of the snarling for him. But mostly he commanded the stage with his fine sound and could charm as well as threaten. Erica Back’s Siebel and Tiina Penttinen’s Marthe made the most of their smaller contributions.

Clemens Unterreiner (Valentin) © Valtteri Hirvonen
Clemens Unterreiner (Valentin)
© Valtteri Hirvonen

But the opera often, as here, belongs to Marguerite, and that role was in the excellent hands of Tuuli Takala. Both her ballad of the King of Thule and the ensuing Jewel Song were highlights of the evening, as they are of the score. Her acting covered the range from innocent girl to woman in love and finally terrified penitent. The evening belonged to her.

Phillipe Auguin is a veteran of seven previous Savonlinna productions, but even he had some minor hiccups keeping pit and stage together, especially when the production put singers far apart on the broad stage even when they were part of the same ensemble. But Auguin conducted the fine orchestra and chorus as if he really believes in this evergreen work, which was wonderful to hear in the composer’s rather overlooked anniversary year - Gounod was born in 1818, and Faust is his masterpiece.

****1