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September 21, 2004

A Damned Good Show - Gounod's Faust at the Mussorgsky Opera

Posted by David Conway

Gounod's Faust
Mussorgsky Opera, St. Petersburg
conducted by A. Anikhanov
17th September 2004

I could hardly leave St. Petersburg on my recent visit without sampling some local music-making, but neither the Philharmonia nor the Mariinsky Theatre had yet started their seasons. The lady in the kiosk offered me however a ticket for the city's 'second house', the Mussorgsky Opera at the Maly Theatre for that evening – the performance being Gounod's Faust. I hesitated. I last saw Faust maybe forty years ago at Sadler's Wells, and had never had the urge to repeat the experience. When the opera was recently revived in London, friends gave me glowing reports of the performances of Alagna, Gheorgiu, and Terfel. But if I 'just' want to hear wonderful singing I can hear it as much as I like on CD - if I go to a theatre performance, I don't want to fork out a three-figure sum (in sterling anyway) for the privilege of hearing big stars (if they have not cancelled) strut their stuff for a few minutes embedded in musical sludge and yet another 'insulting the audience' production. The soldiers' chorus and the townspeople's waltz are already wearisome after their first statements, and even the Jewel Song brings to mind, rather than girlish rapture, the fearsome Madame Castafiore, nemesis of Captain Haddock.

On the other hand, the Maly Theatre gives the experience (and rather faded atmosphere) of a real working Russian opera house. The audience is not stuffed with foreign tourists, or with people who want to be seen, rather than to listen. Indeed, without the assistance of any government initiatives on 'access' or 'inclusivity', one finds, as in most Russian theatres, a complete cross-section of Russian society, old, young, rich, poor and every gradation in between. Unlike we of the soul-benumbed West, the Russian people seem to be still close to culture, and not only their own. I am sure this is one of the important elements that help to keep them together - faced with the everyday problems of the Russian citizen, British society would long ago have utterly collapsed. So I forked out 275 roubles (£5.50) for a ticket. I should explain here that, very regrettably, the St. Petersburg opera houses still work on a dual pricing system – my ticket was at Russian price (but then I am experienced in bluffing my way past the dragons at the theatre entrance), whereas a foreigner is expected to pay 1300 roubles (£26).

Faust was Charles Gounod's first hit when it was produced in 1859. Up till then he was perhaps better known as a Church composer and had indeed considered ordination. This perhaps explains something of the prissy atmosphere which attaches to Faust, the libretto of which is a long way after Goethe. The most striking parts are indeed the Church scene and the part of Mephistopheles. Faust himself, Marguerite and her brother Valentin have always seemed to me to be anaemic and their music pretty enough in places but instantly forgettable and never quite as inspiring as one feels the composer believed it to be. Gounod has melodic inspiration, undoubtedly, but he rarely seems capable of extending it musically through dramatic structure, except by the technique which he resorts to over-frequently, of repetition by stepwise tonal sequence.

And yet, whilst the opera seems today in many ways faded, it represented at the time a dramatic change from the staple fare. For thirty years, the Parisian stage had been dominated by the spectacular grand operas of Meyerbeer and Halιvy (who had been Gounod's teacher), with their massive historic themes, spectacular stage displays and public, rather than personal, agendas. Although Faust still shows a debt to Meyerbeer – Mephistopheles has more than an element of Bertram from Robert le Diable, which Gounod's onstage organ also recalls – it marks an important transition from opera giving an idealistic presentation of love to a more blatant interest in sex. The segue is from the 'political' concerns of grand opera expressing the liberal ideals of the July monarchy towards the more down-and-dirty obsessions of the Second Empire. Audiences flocked to it – and what seems to us now its queasy prurience opened the way to Carmen and, later still, Wozzeck.

The Maly Theatre has not, of course, the scenic, financial or vocal resources of the big Western houses. But, under its artistic director Stanislav Gaudasinski it has something which many Western theatres have left behind – stagecraft. Simple effects can go a long way if they are carefully used. Overhanging the staging, after we had left the murk of Faust's study, mirrors reflecting a projection on the stage floor gave us a fascinating ambiguity of dimension and viewpoint – in the church scene, the monks are processing along the aisle but we are simultaneously viewing them from a high clerestory; at the end of the penultimate scene Marguerite is in a dungeon (on stage) but she is at the same time (in the mirrors) in a circle of blue sky. Another trick is for Mephistopheles to appear at one side of the stage immediately after having quitted it on the other, by cunning use of a costume double (which also enables the devil eerily to clone himself during his Serenade).

The voices inevitably lack the finesse of prestigious stagings. There is the Russian tendency for 'can belto', although all the leads managed accurately, if not persuasively, the traditional clap-trap passages. That one did not empathise very much with Vasily Spichko (Faust), Elena Borisevich (Marguerite) or Yuri Ivshin (Valentin) is attributable as much to the music as to their workman-like interpretations. The chorus sings acceptably (although the disposition of a chorus on stage in general is a problem which Russian directors, even Guadasinski, have not yet managed to solve). What kept the production consistently engaging however was the dynamic Mephistopheles of Alexander Matveev. No suave French intriguer, this devil was coarse, brutal and Russian through and through, manipulating Faust with all the irrepressible gusto of a Yeltsin-generation 'entrepreneur' with the old intelligentsia dancing at his mercy.

Readers will have noticed that I placed the prison scene as penultimate. In this version, the full Walpurgisnacht ballet music, usually deleted or severely curtailed, has been reinstated and used as the final scene, with Marguerite's apotheosis tacked on at the end. Although this warps the story-line more than somewhat, and although I am not a ballet fan, I find it difficult to get too worked up about this. This is partly because I don't believe the original to be a sacrosanct masterpiece. But is also because the Russians undeniably know how to stage and perform a ballet. Dumping the original story-line of Faust meeting various beauties of the past, the production goes for a high-energy orgy, featuring Elena Evseeva as an absolutely delectable punk demonette. It may not be world-class opera, but it all makes for a great evening out.

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The SAU certainly has widened its remit - reviewing opera in St. Petersburg. This is not a complaint - I think there is a dire need for broadly conservative cultural comment in the UK and the SAU seems to be starting to fill this niche.

Posted by: Jill at September 21, 2004 11:53 PM
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