Tempting Fate: Faust from the Opéra national de Paris

Gounod – Faust

Faust – Benjamin Bernheim
Méphistophélès – Christian Van Horn
Valentin – Florian Sempey
Wagner – Christian Helmer
Marguerite – Ermonela Jaho
Siébel – Michèle Losier
Dame Marthe – Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo

Choeurs de l’Opéra national de Paris, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Lorenzo Viotti.
Stage director – Tobias Kratzer.  Video director – Julien Condemine.  

Opéra national de Paris – Opéra Bastille, Paris, France.  Friday, March 26th, 2021.  Streamed via France.tv

For its latest new production of Gounod’s Faust, the Opéra national de Paris engaged Tobias Kratzer, one of the most insightful stage directors active today.  Around him, they gathered a cast of francophone and other international singers, led by Franco-Swiss conductor, Lorenzo Viotti.  Of course, due to the current sanitary situation, this was a performance not quite as Kratzer might have envisaged when first planning the production.  The chorus and extras wore masks – and the spectacle of the masked chorus dancing in a boite de nuit where Faust first met Marguerite is perhaps a premonition of what we might have to look forward to when venues reopen.  Otherwise, the principals most certainly gave no-holds-barred performances, fully engaging with each other.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus / OnP

Kratzer sets the action in modern day Paris, France.  We are first introduced to Faust incarnated by mature actor, Jean-Yves Chilot, while Benjamin Bernheim sang his music from the wings.  It was an interesting touch of Kratzer’s to have Chilot occasionally reappearing throughout the evening, showing up at that boite de nuit or in Marguerite’s bathroom, desperately asking Méphistophélès for more of the rejuvenating potion so that he could rediscover his lost youth.  Marguerite and Valentin live in a banlieue, Valentin an eager basketball player and Marguerite tapping her thoughts of love into her laptop.  There’s an interesting theme to be explored here around how a bourgeois Faust, through Méphistophélès, exploits a poorer woman living in a tower block, but I’m not convinced Kratzer fully explores this as much as he could have.  Additionally, there were also power relations between Méphistophélès and Faust that, again, felt underexplored – particularly in how Méphistophélès blindfolded Marguerite and forced himself on her, with Faust watching, and she thinking he was Faust.  Indeed, I left with an overwhelming impression of a show that may actually have worked much better in the theatre – even in the aircraft hangar-proportioned Bastille.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus / OnP

Another reason for this is that Kratzer makes quite interesting use of video, designed by a frequent collaborator of his, Manuel Braun, to add additional insights into the action.  For instance, we see Méphistophélès and Faust flying over the rooftops of Paris, France, or Marguerite trying on her jewels magnified with the camera across the whole of the proscenium, or indeed Marguerite’s ultrasound similarly magnified across the proscenium.  On the small screen, I’m convinced we failed to get a full appreciation of Kratzer’s vision, in a way we would have live.  Where this approach really worked, was in the scene where Méphistophélès taunts Marguerite, here in an empty metro car hurtling through the tunnel, with nowhere for Marguerite to escape to.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus / OnP

Musically, there was much that satisfied.  Bernheim gave an enormous amount of pleasure through the clarity of his diction, rendering the French subtitles on the streaming utterly superfluous.  If I had to be extremely churlish, I would say that the final ‘r’s in some words were not audible through the speakers: ‘amour’ sounded like ‘amou’ and ‘cœur’ like ‘queue’, for instance, but this is something extremely small.  His bright, silvery tenor was dispatched with easy lyricism and he made some ravishing use of voix mixte on occasion, not least in that celebrated passage in ‘salut demeure’, where he gave us an exquisite double hairpin on the high C and descended from there with poise.  He also demonstrated some impeccable breath control, phrasing with delicacy, where many before him have had to split up the lines.  Bernheim also threw himself fully into all of the physical demands of Kratzer’s production.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus / OnP

His Marguerite was the ever-astounding Ermonela Jaho.  There will of course have been more sheerly ‘beautiful’ voices to have tackled this music, but few with the sheer commitment and dramatic energy that Jaho brings to the role.  She sang her ‘air des bijoux’ with ecstatic strength, energizing it and pulling the audience in, even without perhaps the benefit of a genuine trill.  Jaho also sang in impeccable French, investing the text with meaning and feeling.  Her confrontation with Méphistophélès was gripping, both in her acting and use of text.  In the final trio, Jaho sang like a woman possessed, the voice soaring ever higher, her acting most certainly keeping this audience member on the edge of his seat.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus / OnP

Méphistophélès was sung by Christian Van Horn, the owner of a bass of particularly liquid warmth in the middle.  He had obviously worked very hard on the text and the words were clear, even if some of the vowels and diphthongs were rather Anglophone.  The top also seems to lack body and seems disconnected from the rest, but Van Horn is still relatively young and this may come with time.  His stage presence was utterly palpable even through the small screen.  Florian Sempey sang Valentin and here again, one was taken by the quality of his diction.  Sempey is one of the finest bel canto baritones out there, but it did feel that he sang his big opening number rather too generously.  I longed for him to pull back and allow the tone to flow.  He certainly warmed up to his big death scene, however, singing with strength and determination.  Michèle Losier sang with her customary innate sense of style as Siebel, the clarity of her diction and stylistic understanding always give much pleasure.  Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo was efficiently dispatched as Dame Marthe, her rustic mezzo in good shape.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus / OnP

The choruses, prepared by José-Luis Basso, gave a rousing and full-throated account of ‘gloire immortelle de nos aïeux’.  Elsewhere, the ladies were somewhat unfocused of tone, but all credit to them for throwing themselves into the spirit of the staging.  The house orchestra was on respectable form for Viotti.  The strings had some internal disagreements about tempi, not always moving in step with each other.  Viotti’s tempi felt fairly sensible but it did feel that there were a few frequent drops in tension, for instance in the Faust/Marguerite duet that precedes the final trio.  It was certainly competent but, like the staging itself, perhaps better appreciated in the house.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus / OnP

Naturally, thanks are due to the Opéra for filming this new production and making it available to a wider audience.  That we were able to watch it, despite the restrictions imposed by the current sanitary situation, is certainly reason to be grateful.  And yet, I can’t help but feel that this is a staging that really needs to be seen in the house to be fully appreciated.  That the impact of Kratzer’s vision was blunted by having it reduced to the small screen.  Musically, there was a lot that was positive – Bernheim and Losier’s stylistic understanding, Sempey’s passion, Van Horn’s stage presence, and Jaho’s staggering commitment and pointing of the text.  Much to savour, certainly.

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