French Grand Opera is not something to take on lightly; even the big houses think twice before staging those long works with large casts and traditionally, expensive sets. It’s a brave decision for Dorset Opera Festival to take on Gounod’s Faust as the second opera of their season, but with its solid part for chorus, it’s a useful vehicle for putting their summer school students through their paces. Gounod’s adaptation comes via Michel Carré’s take on Goethe’s sublime version of the legend. Nothing can really match the beauty of Goethe’s verse, but Gounod’s tune-packed score is vibrant, sometimes erotic, sometimes menacing, and in the right hands it can be a thrilling experience.

Anna Patalong (Marguerite) and Nicholas Lester (Valentin) © Dorset Opera
Anna Patalong (Marguerite) and Nicholas Lester (Valentin)
© Dorset Opera

Christopher Cowell’s production is an uncomplicated, uncluttered affair, perhaps a little too empty, but given that the chorus probably breaks health and safety regulations for the number of people on stage, this can be forgiven. A curved rear background of arched windows with a starry night sky adds a touch of the fairy tale, and the only dud for me was what seemed to be a large circular window, hovering and creaking into different positions as the plot progressed; theatrecraft that was functional only. Personenregie was reasonable and a dance scene in Act 2 was well choreographed; particularly effective was the parade of disgraced women in Act 5, Marguerite and others meandering across the stage in soiled white gowns, moral and physical cleanliness now dragged through the gutter.

Mark S Doss (Méphistophélès) and Sarah Pring (Marthe) © Dorset Opera
Mark S Doss (Méphistophélès) and Sarah Pring (Marthe)
© Dorset Opera

“I was rooting for Méphistophélès and contemptuous of Faust,” said one TV villain and the first half of that statement was true at this performance. Mark S Doss impressed as Macbeth in DO’s production last year and as Méphistophélès, he stole the show, his treacly rich bass-baritone oozing seductively across the stage. He has an imposing stage presence and in his dark coat and scarlet waistcoat, he was a fine embodiment of the Devil, capturing not just the hellish, but the humorous. Technique was solid, diction characteristically attentive, and his projection made him audible through substantial ensemble scenes.

Faust was sung by Alejandro del Cerro, a tenor little known in this country, but worth hearing. Big voiced, his is an instrument that has a slight bray to it, but the registers seemed integrated and after a restrained start, he approached the high notes with enthusiasm and success; his “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” was one of the highlights of the evening. A little more refinement to his take on the character would have been nice; his interpretation suffered from an absence of much beyond an infatuation with Marguerite.

Anna Patalong (Marguerite) © Dorset Opera
Anna Patalong (Marguerite)
© Dorset Opera

Anna Patalong impressed last year as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin; as Marguerite, the characteristic expansive phrasing was there, and there was a lovely trill to the voice, but it was only towards the end of the third act that she really seemed to inhabit the character, and from the fourth act, when she projected the chill caused by Méphistophélès through to the fifth with her madness and subsequent redemption, her performance took off. Baritone Nicholas Lester’s Valentin was stridently sung, an energetic assumption of the role which showcased his appealing middle voice and even tone. Simone Riksman’s naive Siebel had a youthful freshness and an earnest delivery, while Sarah Pring relocated from the Touraine of Le comte Ory to Wittenberg to sing Marthe, much the same as her other role and performed with the same eye for comedy.

The student chorus gave another enthusiastic performance; diction didn’t feel quite as accurate as it was for the Rossini, but the same quality of animation was there. Jeremy Carnall conducted a bold, colourful interpretation; string intonation issues aside, there was character and there was drama. A commendable effort that showed that you don’t need to be grand to perform grand opera.

****1