Mandy Fredrich’s plane from Hanover landed at London City Airport two hours before curtain up. The German soprano should have been heading to Bonn, preparing for a jump-in as Fifth Maid in Theater Bonn’s run of Elektra, but when Covent Garden calls, you drop everything to make your Royal Opera debut. She was replacing an indisposed Irina Lungu, who was herself stepping in for an injured Diana Damrau (slipped disc) as Marguerite in the fifth revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Faust.

Mandy Fredrich © Eellen Schmaus
Mandy Fredrich
© Eellen Schmaus

There was no time for rehearsal and one of the creatives met her at the airport to talk her through the staging on the dash to Bow Street. Fredrich was truly thrown into the lion’s den, but she knows Marguerite well, having sung the role several times in Stuttgart and twice at the Wiener Staatsoper. She has a neat, compact soprano, good French diction, and a pleasing purity of line. Her gentle ballad about the King of Thule gave her time to settle vocally, after which there was plenty of sparkle in her Jewel Song. The scene where she prays in the candle-infested cathedral was touching and she navigated the staging like a trooper. Hats off to her!

The Cabaret L'Enfer © ROH | Tristram Kenton
The Cabaret L'Enfer
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

“In my domain, everything obeys me!” In McVicar’s staging, which veers between Gothic and camp with giddy speed, Méphistophélès appears in the last act dressed in a sparkly black ballgown and diamantine tiara, master (or mistress) of ceremonies at the Palais Garnier. The distinctive grand drape is recognisable, as are the theatre boxes – right down to the wallpaper and lamps – on one side of the set. Opposite, highlighting the essential tensions in Gounod’s opera, are cathedral pillars and an organ loft. McVicar sets the action in Paris during the Second Empire, the soldiers heading off to the Franco-Prussian War, and plays up the sanctimonious excesses of Gounod’s schmaltzy score with sweeping theatricality. A stone crucifix seeps wine during Mephisto’s “Golden Calf” number. Auerbachs Keller becomes the Cabaret l’Enfer, populated with high-kicking can-can dancers. Méphistophélès oversees a ghoulish version of Giselle where Jockey Club gents ogle ballerinas, one of whom is heavily pregnant, her baby ripped from her and deposited in a child coffin. During the proceedings, a zombified Valentin returns only to be used as a pin cushion by a sword-wielding corps(e). Revived by Bruno Ravella, it’s as terrifically entertaining as ever.

Act 5 ballet © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Act 5 ballet
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Erwin Schrott’s puffed-up Mephisto – dripping with swagger and sarcasm – revels in such a staging, stealing every scene with his cackles, guffaws and sword twirling. If Schrott had been sporting a moustache, he’d have twirled that too. When Valentin threatens him by making a cross with two swords, Schrott’s devil merely uses them as a mirror to check out his reflection. His smoky bass schmoozes through the score, often setting his own tempi which conductor Dan Ettinger miraculously managed to shadow.

Erwin Schrott (Méphistophélès) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Erwin Schrott (Méphistophélès)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

His victim was Michael Fabiano’s Faust, in fine form and reining in his tenor for much of the evening, delivering a sensitive cavatina “Salut, demeure chaste et pure”. He partnered Fredrich well, although he tended to dominate the final trio. Stéphane Degout oaken baritone was rich and ripe as Valentin, a gorgeous “Avant de quitter ces lieux” arguably the vocal highlight of the performance. Marta Fontanals-Simmons’ plum-toned mezzo made for a lovely Siébel and Carole Wilson played Marthe for laughs well.

Stéphane Degout (Valentin) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Stéphane Degout (Valentin)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The ROH Chorus was in particularly lusty form as the returning soldiers. I’ve rarely been convinced by Ettinger’s conducting, but here he did just about everything right, following singers well and drawing voluptuous playing from the orchestra. A devilishly fun performance.

****1