I spent a very pleasant evening last Tuesday at the Carmike James Island 8 cinema (near Charleston, SC) viewing an “encore” performance broadcast of Charles Gounod’s Faust – his most famous opera – in a glitzy and star-studded production from London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Such encore performances are offered because live, “simulcast” performances beamed from Europe are shown in America around midday, owing to time zone differences. Full disclosure: the main reason I was there was because one of the lead singers happened to be one of Delos’ most cherished recording artists, the fabled Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who appeared in the role of Valentin: the ill-fated brother of heroine Marguerite. So kindly pardon me for tooting Dmitri’s horn the loudest here, even though his esteemed musical colleagues – as well as the production team – all deserve similar praise.
Before I tell you about it, allow me to indulge in a little historical perspective. The ancient German legend of Faust – the philosopher who sold his soul to the devil for renewed youth and universal knowledge – had been knocking around Europe for centuries when Germany’s beloved bard, J. W. von Goethe, elevated it to its highest literary form in his two-part dramatic masterpiece during the early 1800’s. An immediate smash-hit across Europe, it ended up inspiring countless literary and musical adaptations – to include two other major operas (by Boito and Busoni) plus varied musical takes from Schubert, Berlioz, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Mahler – among others. But it’s this glowing 1859 effort from Gounod (the most successful opera of its day) that remains the story’s best-known treatment – even though he dispensed with much of Goethe’s lofty philosophical trappings in favor of the drama’s more bourgeois love-angle.
As for David McVicar’s original production (first staged in 2004; revived here by Lee Blakely), leave it to the folks at Covent Garden to generate an incredibly rich theatrical coup from it. Production design, sets (Charles Edwards), costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) and lighting (Paule Constable) conspired to faithfully conjure up mid-nineteenth-century Paris onstage, with a prevailing atmosphere of elegant decay. Michael Keegan Dolan’s imaginative original choreography (revived here by Daphne Strothman) artfully mingled excellent dancers with the chorus. Remember, in France, it’s not real opera if you don’t include ballet – and lots of it. Even by major-house standards, the overall effort was something special.
The same applies to the production’s overall musical qualities. Seasoned Italian conductor Evelino Pidò held things together beautifully, drawing lush orchestral sound from the pit as well as hearty singing from his grand chorus. And, ah – the lead singers! As the title hero, tenor Vittorio Grigolo was simply fabulous: youthfully intense, ardently lyrical, and equipped with a gorgeous voice that – while lacking a typically Italian spinto top end – is ideally suited to French opera. And what can I say about soprano Angela Gheorghiu that hasn’t already been said? Here, she delivered her role to perfection, adroitly capturing heroine Marguerite’s initial coy innocence and later descent into madness – and producing ravishing vocal beauty all the while. And what a creepy treat it was to watch (and hear) René Pape – the villainous bass par excellence – have his supremely sinister way with the marvelous role of Méphistophélès! Lesser characters were all very well-executed – including the pants-role of Siébel (Michèle Losier), the dowager Martha Schwertlein (Carole Wilson) and Wagner (Daniel Grice). The ensemble scenes came off flawlessly and in perfect balance.
But, remember, I’m here to talk mainly about Delos’ silver-maned, golden-voiced recording star, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky – who simply outdid himself as Marguerite’s star-crossed brother, the soldier Valentin. He put his vaunted, over-the-top Russian emotionality to good, if somewhat restrained use (after all, he portrayed the opera’s steadiest and most sensible character). In his first (and most famous) aria, Avant de quitter ces lieux, (Watch on YouTube) he sang of his love for his sister with endearing affection and exquisite tenderness – and projected just the right touch of macho swagger at the glorious prospect of marching off to war. In his later death scene – after getting stabbed by Faust – he expired spectacularly, with gripping drama and bitter grief at his sibling’s sad fate. Vocally, he was wondrous, as usual – his rich, velvety tones carrying beautifully over the orchestra. And his shiver-me-timbers top end was easily as thrilling as any leading tenor’s high C. Check out any of his many Delos albums – and experience Dmitri for yourself.
Bravo to Carmike Cinemas for bringing us such glorious productions from one of the world’s truly great opera houses – even if some shows are sparsely attended (like the one I caught). Both sonic and video quality is fully on a par with the well-known competing simulcasts from New York’s Metropolitan opera. These shows – despite video tricks like closeups and zoom-shots – bless the viewer with an uncanny sense of “being there” for the actual performance … I even caught myself clapping and cheering after a well-executed aria. This was a performance that deserves to live on as a DVD release – and I’d be the first to buy it! Just think – only a few years back, who would’ve ever imagined enjoying live opera in a movie theater?
All this – and popcorn, too!
— Lindsay Koob