Teatro Real de Madrid 2018-19 Review: Faust

By Mauricio Villa

Teatro Real decided to open the 2018-19 season with Gounod’s “Faust,” an opera which have been staged only once in 2003 since the theatre reopened in 1997.

The expectations were high, with a strong cast lead by the international star tenor Piotr Beczala and accompanied by Marina Rebeka and Luca Pisaroni; the young conductor Ed Ettinger was in charge of the orchestra and La Fura dels Baus presented the production which had premiered in Amsterdam in 2014.

Everything was ready for the big opening: the red carpet, politicians and even the Kings of Spain; but above all a sold-out house ready to enjoy one of the jewels of French Opera.

However, the result was uneven.

The Stars Of the Night

Piotr Beczala had only appeared at Teatro Real during a concert gala in 2014, therefore it was his opera debut at the theatre. Faust is a role that he knows by heart and per Operabase, he last sang it in August of 2016 at the Salzburg Festival. In any case, it’s an opera that is undeniably well-suited to his talents. His voice was brilliant, dark and even powerful with ringing high notes as he proved with his ringing high C in “Salut demeure chaste et pure.”Apparently his latter incursion on more heavy Verdi roles and Wagner has not altered his vocal line as he keeps a fluid legato and musicality.

Soprano Marina Rebeka made her debut at Teatro Real too; she has previously appeared in this opera at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo and the Latvian National Opera. Her portrayal of Marguerite was sweet, innocent-like in Acts two and three. During her Act four aria “Il ne reviens pas,” her performance took on a far more complex and dramatic complexion; you also saw this grit and intensity when Marguerite drowns her own son in Walpurgis night. Vocally, she sang with a rounded quality, completely balanced in every part of her register. Worthy of note was the piannisimi she floated in some moments; they were simply exquisite.

Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni had the challenging task of playing Mephistophélès, but you could see he was not comfortable with the costumes, nor with most of the actions. This was particularly noticeable during “Le veau d’or,” when he was unfortunately tasked with standing on an elevated water tank and holding a microphone as if he was giving a rock concert. Not that you can place any blame on him. That’s what he was asked to do. But he managed to put all his skills into the role and portrayed a cynical version of the devil, oscillating between funny or malevolent. That said, vocally you could really appreciate that Mozart suits him better than Gounod as there was a perceived lack of power and projection, with the bass-baritone easily disappearing during ensembles.

I should mention the fantastic intervention of Stephane Degout as Valentin, defending “Avant des quittes ces lieux” with lyrism and determination as well as being a convincing actor in his death scene. The magnificent chorus of Teatro Real was also in top form.

What Were They Doing?

Conductor Dan Ettinger presented the score with very few cuts and was inclined to put all his energy into it. However, the tempi wound up too fast with little lyricism and an exaggerated use of the Forte sounds. In many ways, it sounded more like a Wagner opera than anything approximating French opera. Unfortunately for Ettinger, the audience seemed to catch on and were vocal in their disapproval during the final curtains.

Unfortunately, the major culprits of the entire evening’s overall imbalance were La Fura dels Baus. The famed production group is famous for its modern approach and the use of multimedia. Therefore the production was quite visual, with good effects, lighting, and projections, but this could not sustain a three-hour opera, and after a while, everything just looked rather bland and unoriginal.

Moreover, their concept for the piece didn’t really make much sense. A glance at the program notes revealed that they saw the opera from the perspective of Faust working in a laboratory trying to recreate the human brain. Filling the stage with canisters and bodies and lamps didn’t really illuminate this interpretation in any way whatsoever.  The subsequent crutch of dropping and lifting said lamps and the glass canisters didn’t help much either. The choice of making Marguerite’s hands and hair blue didn’t really make much sense either, but one assumes that the stage director might be able to pen an entire dissertation about it and it still might not cohere with the opera at hand. As one might expect, the directors and producers also got some major disapproval from the audience members.

Ultimately, this was a night that was elevated only by truly great singers. Unfortunately, everything else on stage was disposable. Literally.


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