In this Royal Opera production of Gounod's Faust, there's no question about who's in charge. Not only does the devil get all the best lines, but he bosses the show from beginning to end. Clad in feathered hat, long curly wig and reminiscent of the Laughing Cavalier, René Pape plays Mephistopheles quite superbly, alternating between mercurial bouffe comic lines and extreme sardonic nastiness. His voice was smooth and controlled and his whole presence radiated command.

René Pape as Méphistophélès © The Royal Opera / Catherine Ashmore
René Pape as Méphistophélès
© The Royal Opera / Catherine Ashmore

The Royal Opera assembled an astonishing cast for this revival of David McVicar's production: of the four main singers, any one would have been a draw on their own. Faust was sung by the rising star Vittorio Grigolo: after a slightly shaky start where his portrayal of Faust as an old man was fine in body but didn't quite come off in voice, Grigolo's transformation into the rejuvenated Faust was electric. His voice is strong, clear and urgent, he sang with great lyrical feel and his evident joy at the curtain call was winning. In the smaller role of Valentin, Dmitri Hvorostovsky displayed delightful richness of tone and control of line. The supporting cast was strong and Evelino Pidò's conducting was exemplary, giving us all the lush texture of Gounod's score while maintaining perfect balance between the orchestra and each of the singers.

I'm not sure what to make of Angela Gheorghiu, perhaps the biggest draw of the four. Her voice is a marvellous instrument, producing fabulous tone without a hint of harshness and hitting every note in the middle. But my sense is that she wasn't quite going for it. On just a couple of occasions, she pulled out all the stops and showed us that she has the power to fill the hall, but for most of her solo arias, I felt her performance was rather held back - even the famous Jewel Song only really came to life at the end. (Gheorghiu's ensemble work, in contrast, was excellent.)

Charles Edwards's set designs are visually striking throughout, from the gothic columns and church organ that dominate many of the scenes to the decadence of the "Cabaret d'Enfer" where Siébel searches for Marguerite to the thoroughly Goethe-esque forest and graveyard of the Walpurgis night scene. The traditional French Grand Opera ballet scene descended splendidly into orgy as the virginally white tutu-clad ballerinas turn out to be coarse demons. There was the odd false note - most notably, the guardian angel at the end in top hat and tail coat with plastic angel wings was a bit odd - but the staging was generally inventive and interesting.

All of which brings me to a confession. This was about as good an all round performance of Faust as I could reasonably expect, and it still didn't make me love the opera. I put it down to a mixture of several things: the religiosity of much of the language when mixed up with a high romantic overlay and superstitious effects like curses and demons, the strange nineteenth century attitude to sex (my beloved must be totally yielding to my desires while simultaneously remaining pure, chaste and religious) and the pathetic character of Faust himself, who is continually doing things that he immediately regrets when placed under the mildest of pressure from Mephistopheles. Adding it all up, I just can't take the drama seriously.

The gorgeous music just isn't enough to win me over, although René Pape's bravura performance came close and there's much to admire in the production. If you're a fan of Faust or of Gounod's operas in general, you'll probably love this.