La Fura dels Baus’ interest in the story of Faust goes back to their staging of Goethe’s masterpiece in 1997 (F@ust 3.0), followed by a stage version of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and even a film, Fausto 5.0. Maybe uninspired by Gounod’s gushy approach to the legend, this co-production by the Teatro Real and Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2014, feels like a modest Faust 5.1 rather than a wholehearted 6.0 release. Toying with a plot element disregarded by Gounod, director Alex Ollé has turned Faust into a scientist leading 'The Homunculus project', a gory experiment that tries to create a bio-mechanic artificial intelligence able to transcend the limits of nature. The idea blurs swiftly in the transition to Act 2 and all but disappears throughout the performance, only to come back briefly at the very end. A brushstroke rather than a dramatic thread, this abortive promethean dimension didn’t really add to the show.

Piotr Beczała (Faust) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Piotr Beczała (Faust)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

On the other hand, the production had all the usual traits of the company: clear narrative (thanks to boisterous archetypes: ultra-technological soldiers, football supporters, voluptuous madams and Baroque virgins), effective transitions, good use of the stage, visual coherence and some good fun in the Walpurgis Scene. Alfons Flores’ all-purpose mobile towers provided an abstract and ghastly architectural background to the story. Lluc Castells' costumes were superb and really contributed to the best of Ollé’s scattered ideas: the amazing characterisation of Méphistophélès as a dodgy and bored nocturnal flaneur, his body covered by tattoos, who ends up being Faust’s reckless alternative self, his ultimate and damning creation.

Leading an excellent cast, Marina Rebeka made a sensational house debut as Marguerite at her most innocent. Her singing was canonical, with total command of her exciting lyric soprano. She sang "Il était un roi de Thulé" with intriguing narrative style, thanks to perfect dynamics and careful phrasing, and she excelled in the Jewel Song, with a charming vanity touch and good coloratura (but, alas, no thrills). She crowned the scene with the best sound of the night, a thundering and ringing B sharp. In the final trio, she was always on top of her male colleagues and the orchestra, with ever growing phrases that made her the fair winner of the redemptive battle.

Piotr Beczała (Faust) and Marina Rebeka (Marguerite) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Piotr Beczała (Faust) and Marina Rebeka (Marguerite)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Piotr Beczała proved why he currently owns the role of Faust and sang every note with total command and overwhelming confidence, even in tricky Act 1. His voice possesses a captivating silvery timbre in the central range, a true mine of fresh and shiny sounds that filled the house. In the run up to the passaggio, however, the voice either opens or strains, leading to frequent changes of colour that break the legato. This sometimes strained the natural elegance and technical control he displayed in the most lyrical parts, as "Salut demeure", that didn’t flow with the velvety easiness that the score demands.

The role of Méphistophélès is well beyond (or below) the realm of Luca Pisaroni’s bass-baritone, but thanks to good technique and his commitment to the production’s earthy devil, he achieved a convincing performance. The lower notes weren't there and one could have asked for more vocal authority in "Le veau d’or", but his phrasing was always good and where he sang in his natural range ("Vous qui faites l’endormie"), his voice came out as a sinful treat. The sturdy Valentin may not be the ideal role for displaying all the lyrical craftsmanship of which Stéphane Degout is capable, but he portrayed the martial and loyal soul of Marguerite’s brother with an irresistible combination of superb French diction and Spartan phrasing. Sylvie Brunet was excellent as the mordant Marthe, Serena Malfi lavished volume and enthusiasm as Siébel and Isaac Galán was a very expressive Wagner, with clear diction and good singing.

Piotr Beczała (Faust) and Luca Pisaroni (Méphistophélès) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Piotr Beczała (Faust) and Luca Pisaroni (Méphistophélès)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Conductor Dan Ettinger made sure that he was heard in his house debut. His obsession with density at the expense of clarity resulted in a constantly blurred string section, unable to draw a distinct melodic line. But strength doesn’t always mean intensity and for all the artificial emphasis, every climax was completely devoid of emotion. The woodwind section was superb (when it could be heard) and there was a joyful moment of disorder in the military march in Act 4, with the brass at its most riotous. Probably spurred by Ettinger’s impulse, the Chorus of the Teatro Real was showier than ever, displaying amazing timbre and top notes, although sometimes, especially in the male section, it didn’t sound as the smooth ensemble it usually is but as an aggregation of competing good soloists.

***11