For all its international popularity (it is apparently in the top 10 most performed operas at the Metropolitan in New York), Gounod’s Faust has fared poorly in the Netherlands: it was not staged by Dutch National Opera (previously Netherlands Opera) for 45 years. It was worth the wait: this new production directed by Catalan theatre company La Fura dels Baus, conducted by Marc Minkowski, is nothing short of spectacular.

Michael Fabiano (Faust) © Ruth Walz
Michael Fabiano (Faust)
© Ruth Walz

La Fura dels Baus seems to have a particular affinity with the myth of Faust: they already directed Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust in Salzburg in 1999 and a film titled Fausto 5.0 in 2001. As one could expect, there is little traditional in their interpretation of Goethe’s tale. In director Àlex Ollé’s vision for this Amsterdam version, Faust is not an old doctor looking for eternal youth, but a scientist working on the “Homunculus Project”, in a high-tech research centre for cell biology. The project has come to a frustrating dead end and it is to get it out of the rut that Faust calls upon Méphistophélès.

The stage opens on a laboratory with a sterile chamber behind the glass of which scientists in air-tight suits hover amongst vertical tanks in which one guesses human-shaped silhouettes. In Act II, those tanks open to uncover blond female humanoids that dance and entertain the partygoers. Those humanoid blondes, played by a part of the chorus, come back scene after scene: as prostitutes in windows of the red light district (after all, this is Amsterdam); as nurses when the soldiers return from battle; as Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and other damned beauties at the orgy of Walpurgis Night. Apart from them, the stage is populated with a team of football players in red and white jerseys, an army of soldiers straight out of The Hurt Locker, a group of billionaires in tuxedos and wigged matrons in party clothes, with enormous enlarged breasts. This colourful crowd sings, dances and moves around in the jaw-dropping sets by Alfons Flores who uses machinery, light and video to recreate as the story advances Faust’s research laboratory, the red light district, the interior of a church, the Sabbath of Walpurgis Night, and the prison in which Marguerite awaits her death. The final result is an engrossing spectacle. Add to this Minkowski’s sense of drama and the high level of singing of the Dutch National Opera’s Choir, and you get ensemble scenes which are both visually stunning and musically exciting, most notably in the Soldiers Chorus and Walpurgis Night.

Irina Lungu (Marguerite) and Mikhail Petrenko (Méphistophélès) © Ruth Walz
Irina Lungu (Marguerite) and Mikhail Petrenko (Méphistophélès)
© Ruth Walz

Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko, yet another former student of the Mariinsky Academy who is making a promising international career, is a very entertaining Méphistophélès. His first appearance, dressed up as a tattooed rock star in fur coat and skinny trousers, is memorable, as any Méphisto’s entrance should be. Interestingly, as the opera advances, his appearance sobers up gradually and he ends up dressed in the same grey suit and turtle neck as Faust in the last scene, suggesting he is just Faust’s alter ego. Petrenko’s vivid acting conveys the humorous, cynical side of the devil, but somewhat misses the sinister, darker side of the character. He sings the role with aplomb, in clear if only slightly accented French, but I found his lower register lacked resonance to really be audible above the orchestra.

Irina Lungu, another Russian, is a very poignant Marguerite. Her round soprano sound is perhaps a tad too dark for the trills of the “Jewel aria” (which she still sang beautifully), but this is just what gives it the weight to communicate the dramatic downfall of the young woman in later acts. Her scene and aria (“Elles ne sont plus là… Il ne revient pas!”) at the beginning of Act IV, when Marguerite laments being abandoned by her friends, after getting pregnant by Faust and realizes her lover will never come back, was the emotional highlight of the evening.

The loudest applause however went to American tenor Michael Fabiano as Faust. The recipient of the prestigious Tucker Award 2014 has pretty much all the qualities operagoers rave about in a tenor: a rich and solid lyrico-spinto sound with full-throated high notes and a strong stage presence. He delivered his big aria “Salut, demeure chaste…” superbly and demonstrated, in his last scene with Marguerite, that he was also capable of a subtle and tender piano that is still audible above an orchestra.

Siebel was luxuriously cast with the warm mezzo of Marianne Crebassa. As Valentin, Florian Sempey compensated somewhat introverted acting (then again, the righteous brother ought to be wooden) with his beautifully dark-toned baritone.

I’d recommend first time-goers and opera buffs alike to rush to this production: this is as spectacular as French Grand Opéra gets.

****1