The devil may not get all the best tunes in Gounod’s Faust, but Gábor Bretz certainly stole the show in this new production at Hungarian State Opera. Polish director Michał Znainiecki has a lot of fun, combining the surreal with Eurovision kitsch, full of lurid colours, in his staging. In an evening low on Gallic finesse, Bretz’s Méphistophélès triumphed, whether enjoining Faust to snort cocaine in the Bacchus Disco or strutting round in golfing gear playing cricket through a row of deckchairs, which (as an Englishman) threw me completely.

Zsolt Haja (Valentin) and Gábor Bretz (Méphistophélès) © Péter Rákossy
Zsolt Haja (Valentin) and Gábor Bretz (Méphistophélès)
© Péter Rákossy

Faust is old and wheelchair bound. Running himself a bath, he opts for suicide, grabbing a bottle of pills. Méphistophélès conjures up hallucinatory visions, silhouetted animations of writhing girls, until multiple photos of Andrea Rost’s Marguerite whizz around the backdrop, eventually forming a Hockney-type collage portrait. Marguerite is a char lady at the golf club, emphasising the social divide between her and Faust, while Siebel is a janitor, sporting Super Mario dungarees and moustache.

Although he provides a contemporary setting, Znainiecki doesn’t really go for gritty realism. His Toytown soldiers are dressed in bright blue uniforms, accompanied by teenaged cheerleaders. Returning from the war, they look as spick and span as when they marched off, collecting their medals to the rumbustious chorus. Bacchus Disco – cross between a nightclub and a home for war veterans, the frenetic waltz full of jive and Lindy Hop. When Valentin recognises Méphistophélès for who he is and makes the sign of the cross, the devil just laughs, takes out his phone and takes a snap to post to Faust.

Dario Schmunck (Faust) and Andrea Rost (Marguerite) © Péter Rákossy
Dario Schmunck (Faust) and Andrea Rost (Marguerite)
© Péter Rákossy
In Act III, Méphistophélès and Faust arrive in a golf buggy, the latter sporting tartan trousers. Bretz has the air of an English gentleman and is evidently a decent chap, having gone to Dolce and Gabbana to buy the jewels to win over Marguerite… whatever happened to magic? The Jewel Song is sung whilst Marguerite, selfie-stick in hand, admires herself on her phone.

Znainiecki doesn’t go all out for laughs. The love duet “Laisse-moi, laisse-moi contempler ton visage” is affecting, giant lilies descending from the flies, each sporting a coloured bulb as stigma. This is made all the more powerful when they have withered by the opening of Act IV, where a stained glass window and neon cross plunge us into the cathedral, with Méphistophélès disguised as priest. Faust dispatches Valentin with a pistol that Mephisto has just drawn from a body bag, an EU flag draped over a coffin at the rear of the stage.

Act V is terrifically staged. We are in a morgue, where Faust lifts down each young girl from the mortuary drawers, only for Mephisto to conjure up a replacement on each slab, before bringing them to life for a ghoulish ballet of writhing contortions. Each girl Faust holds, instantly dies again. Méphisto cradles Marguerite’s baby, which turns out to be a ball of rags. After an affecting death, Marguerite is eventually handed back her baby by a zombie chorus(!), as Faust – back in his bath – takes his own life.

Dario Schmunck (Faust) and Andrea Rost (Marguerite) © Péter Rákossy
Dario Schmunck (Faust) and Andrea Rost (Marguerite)
© Péter Rákossy
Bretz dominated the stage, both physically and vocally. His inky black bass was supple and suave and he sang a thrilling “Le veau d’or”, complete with formation wheelchair choreography. Dario Schmunck’s Faust was a little small scale. His cavatina “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” was well sung, but without the glamorous, heady top notes required. His portrayal was plucky, given that when he discards his ‘old man’ wig in Act I, Schmunck’s Faust still looks well past the first flush of youth.

Local favourite Andrea Rost gave a sympathetic performance as Marguerite. Her voice hardens under pressure and the coloratura and trilling can go a bit wild at times, making the Jewel Song less successful, but she moved with her “Anges pure, anges radieux” in the finale act.

Smaller roles suffered from a sledgehammer approach. Zsolt Haja has a tremendously fine, powerful baritone, but too often sang Valentin as if he was Wotan, with a tendency to verge sharp in his great aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux”. There was also a touch of valkyrie about Marthe. Szilvia Vörös offered big, no-holds barred singing in “Faites-lui mes aveux”, though didn’t always seem at ease in the role. The Chorus was on splendid form throughout, especially terrific in the Waltz.

Maurizio Benini led a spirited account of Gounod’s score, a little unsubtle perhaps, but with plenty of brio. The soldiers’ chorus had gusto and the timpani playing in the final ballet number was little short of demonic! All in all, devilishly good fun.