Over two months every year, the Consul General of France in Hong Kong organises a series of arts events collectively known as “Le French May”. The opera offering in the festival this year is Gounod’s evergreen Faust, the popularity of which stems from some fine music and the quaint story of a scholar selling his soul for hedonistic pleasures, loosely based on the classic by Goethe. In recent years, though, it seems to have gone out of fashion, perhaps because out-of-wedlock pregnancy has become blasé and doesn’t carry the same stigma as it did 150 years ago.

Stefan Pop (Faust) and Tatiana Lisnic (Marguerite)
Stefan Pop (Faust) and Tatiana Lisnic (Marguerite)

Opera Hong Kong’s production on Sunday was a mixed bag of superb singing, mismatched casting and distracting technical quirks. Judging by the applause he received at the end, Dimitry Ivashchenko stole the show as Méphistophélès. Although he didn’t quite exude Bryn Terfel’s hair-raising evil, he was bad enough to give him a run for his money. His voluminous and resonant bass gave authority to his malevolent manipulation of the wimpy Faust. In “Le veau d’or” (The Golden Calf) and especially the serenade “Vous qui faite l’endormie” (You who are supposed to be asleep), he delivered a chilling undertone of mockery.

Tatiana Lisnic, as the naïve and vulnerable ingénue Marguerite, cried out for sympathy. Her fulsome voice, with even tone, projected warmth and innocence. I was waiting for her to flex her coloratura prowess in “Air des bijoux” (Jewel Song), but it turned out flatter than I had hoped. By contrast, her “Chanson du Roi de Thule” (Song of King Thule) was nostalgic in its childlike charm, and she was quite inspiring in the final act.

I wasn’t convinced that Stefan Pop was the right Faust against Tatiana Lisnic’s Marguerite.  Despite its wide range and ability to hold high notes steady, his rather thin voice struggled to be heard for most of the first part of the performance. His stocky build and afro hairstyle didn’t quite fit my concept of a dashingly handsome and vigorous youth capable of seducing Marguerite. I missed his high C in “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” (I greet you, home chaste and pure) probably because I was distracted.

Zhou Zhengzhong and Aurhelia Varak put in a strong showing as Valentin, Marguerite’s angry brother and Siébel, the trouser role of her suitor competing with Faust. After expressing such concern for her sister’s safety in “Avant de quitter ce lieux” (Before leaving this place), who wouldn’t vent his spleen on finding out she had been so cruelly deceived.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta under Benjamin Pionnier was sometimes clumsy on weighty strings and short on supple lyricism. The horns that announced the start of Act III slipped by unnoticed, although florid passages for the winds, especially clarinet and flute, were gracefully executed.

The Empire of Mephistophélès
The Empire of Mephistophélès

Few will disagree that Faust is a dark drama, what with demonic influences, infanticide and death in a duel, but I wasn’t quite expecting the literal doom and gloom pervading Poppi Ranchetti’s design. The set consisted of wide stone steps on the left leading up to a translucent cloth painted with a greyish castle; a slope on the right rose to a forlorn and bare tree. The dominant colours were black and shades of grey. Even the soldiers’ uniforms were a nondescript and crumply grey. To be fair, there were moments of comic relief, for example, Samantha Chong’s antics as Marthe Schwerlein, collapsing flatly on her back after hearing from Méphistophélès about her husband’s death and then writhing around and caressing him.

Finally, some technical details puzzled me. A motorised wheelchair for Faust in Act I was confusing about the historical context; Faust’s transformation into his youthful past never took place on stage; and Méphistophélès plunged the sword to kill Valentin instead of Faust.  I also found it rather odd that Faust and Méphistophélès would descend into Marguerite’s garden in a hot air balloon. Marguerite’s imprisonment, though, was cleverly done, with Faust and Méphistophélès each holding a rope tied to one of her hands from which she eventually broke free in her salvation. Overall, I was delighted Opera Hong Kong staged Faust in Le French May, helping restore its currency in the repertoire, and since the work is quite forgiving it was an enjoyable afternoon despite the blemishes.