Charles-François Gounod’s Faust has made a welcome return to Sydney after an absence of many years, and what a victorious return it was! Faust is the archetypal French grand opera: five acts of rampant passion with a tragic finish, attractive melodies and spectacular scenes on stage including the inevitable allegorical ballet (so often cut from modern productions). Known for its immense popularity, it was performed in every season at Covent Garden between 1863 and 1911. Known for his publically voiced derogatory opinions, Richard Wagner called it “a repellent, sugary-vulgar patchwork” in his Art and Politics. But then, Gounod’s melodious opera is contemporaneous with the frenzied chromaticism of Tristan and Isolde, so Wagner’s histrionic hostility is somewhat understandable.

The production was originally directed by David McVicar in 2004 for a co-production between opera companies of London, Monte Carlo, Lille and Trieste, and was revived in Sydney by Bruno Ravella. To its credit, eleven years on it doesn’t feel dated. The splendid designs by Charles Edwards, Brigitte Reiffenstuel and Paule Constable establish the contrast between the spiritual and the hedonistic on opposite sides of the stage as the opera opens: an organ loft on the right and a lavish theatre box on the left frame the proscenium. In between these powerful symbols will aoon appear Marguerite (Nicole Car) high up on stage behind a veil, resembling one of Vermeer’s serene maids with a large jar in her hand, oblivious of the world’s lures.

McVicar’s Faust is relocated around the time of the Franco-Prussian War (which ended with the French army decisively crushed); we know this because the famous soldiers’ choir depicts not the usual bunch of joyful, victorious combatants, but the remnants of a jaded, deflated and defeated army. This is one of the strongest of McVicar’s statements: in a war, everybody loses... except perhaps Méphistophélès (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) who still sings his credo ("Le veau d'or") praising the Golden Calf with splendid nonchalance. Either on advice from the director or on his own initiative, Tahu Rhodes is not so much the devil incarnate but more a rascal, a prankster, cheating at sword fights, wearing a crucifix and dressing differently in almost every scene, here as the (anti)Christ with long curly hair, there as a bearded cross-dresser; in one scene seducing Marthe, Marguerite’s neighbour (Dominica Matthews), in another having a drink with the folks at the tavern. This is why at the climax of that Act II scene, the statue of the Jesus falling off the cross is one of the genuinely diabolical moments: evil is amongst us.

Tahu Rhodes’ voice with its velvety resonance is almost too refined for this role which would probably benefit from more edge and menace, and, surprisingly, his bass-baritone seemed to struggle with some of the low notes. His acting is always convincing though, and his stage personality carries the opera all the way to the last scene where he and an elegantly dressed, winged Saviour, who appears somewhat unexpectedly at the organ, doff their hats to each other in mutual mock-respect. “Why do I have to know what God looks like?” my companion for the evening wondered.

Giorgio Caoduro sang Valentin, Marguerite’s caring brother, indeed with a lot of care, even if accompanied at times with an overly wide vibrato. His phrasing in the much loved Prayer "Avant de quitter ces lieux" was moving, particularly in the pianissimo return of the theme. Performing the titular hero of the opera, Michael Fabiano was strong in his desires and timid in seducing Marguerite in equal measures. His powerful tenor blended in beautifully in the ensemble numbers, yet soared in his Act III cavatina "Salut! Demeure chaste et pure".  

I had never before had the chance to hear the young Australian soprano Nicole Car and I found her performance in the role of Marguerite exemplary. With an attractive stage personality and dependable French diction (alas, not a universal feature of this production), she made her demanding back-to-back arias – the Ballad of the King of Thule and the Jewel Song – her own, singing with intense ardour when demanded but with melancholic pianissimos in the appropriate places.

It takes some courage and a solid technique to sing softly to the large audience in an opera theatre. One of the great assets of the conductor, Guillaume Tourniaire, is his ability to and persistence in convincing the entire cast – orchestra, chorus and principal singers – to perform with the required dynamic contrasts consistently. Of course, much of that is clearly marked in the score, yet traditionally seldom observed. When that happens however, the delicate balance between stage and orchestra, as well as between the individual voices, starts to work and bring fruit immediately – as it did on this opening night. Tourniaire was the outstanding star of this production. His joy in being in control for the flow of Gounod’s haunting melodies was palpable. His innate musicality radiated in the omnipresent rubato, the slight give-and-take of the tempo according to the desired expression, most appropriate in French opera. This worked excellently even in the large and difficult chorus scenes (although the first of them would have benefited from a tighter ensemble) and was particularly apparent in scenes without voices, for example in the various orchestral interludes. The collaboration of conductor and musicians resulted in one of the strongest overall performances of Opera Australia in recent times.