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A devilish romp

State Theatre
11/27/2019 -  & November 29, December 3, 5, 7; 2019
Charles Gounod: Faust
Saimir Pirgu (Faust), Maria Mudryak (Marguerite), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Méphistophélès), Luke Gabbedy (Valentin), Dominica Matthews (Marthe), Anna Dowsley (Siébel), Shane Lowrencev (Wagner)
Opera Australia Chorus, Anthony Hunt (Chorus Master), Orchestra Victoria, Guillaume Tourniaire (Conductor),
Sir David McVicar (Director), Bruno Ravella (Revival Director), Charles Edwards (Set Designer), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (Costume Designer), Michael Keegan-Dolan (Choreographer), Shane Placentino (Revival Choreographer and Assistant Director), Nigel Poulton (Fight Director), Paule Constable (Lighting Designer)

T. T. Rhodes, M. Mudryak (© Jeff Busby)

Faust has returned to Opera Australia (OA)’s repertoire with this production emanating from the Royal Opera, which was already more than a decade old when OA revived it in 2015. That the opera fell off the international schedule from the mid-20th Century is probably due to the difficulties inherent in presenting a mid-19th Century work whose libretto and plot are riven with religious dogma, superstition and high-minded morality. Rendering it relevant to a modern audience poses a challenge which British director Sir David McVicar tackles by exploiting all the features of the grand opéra: monumental settings, lavish costumes, huge-scale cast and orchestra and spectacular stage effects. When we see the injecting of heroin and the drinking of absinthe, we can contextualise the visions and behaviour from the eponymous character and begin to appreciate that much of what we see as stage action may well be going on inside that character’s mind.

The massive sets are fragments of ecclesiastical, theatrical and domestic architecture representing Paris at the beginning of the Belle Epoque. Act Two depicts the Cabaret L’Enfer beneath an arch of Eiffel design and a ballet of prostitutes and thieves plying their wares and fleecing the audience. Variously, great theatrical painted back-cloths descend to depict drapery, the cemetery and eventually the grand circles of the Opéra itself where we are onstage voyeurs to the rampant sexual chaos of the ballet – or is all this only happening inside Faust’s mind?

McVicar’s concept is brilliant. It captures an epoch, hints at universal conflicts in life and love and depicts real historical events like the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, all the time maintaining a rapid pace of stage business, dazzling stage effects and riveting crowd scenes. Aiding the directorial concept, the design for both sets and costumes is extravagant: silks, velvets, embroidery, drapery, tassels and bustles; culminating in the Devil himself in a grotesque parody of drag sporting a copious, sequined black gown, tattoos and tiara! The effect overall is enthralling – it is impossible not to be entirely absorbed just by the visual spectacle of this show.

Maestro Guillaume Tourniaire is a specialist of the French repertoire and his return to Melbourne was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm. His command of an expanded Orchestra Victoria was authoritative, drawing from them one of the finest performances of the season. Lush, exhilarating, subtle and mellow all simultaneously, they were as much the stars of this production as any of the on-stage artists.

Bass-baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes is a favourite of the Australian stage and a much admired Principal Artist with OA. He describes the role of Méphistophélès as “a dream gig” affording him open slather to utilise his vast acting ability alongside his darkening and burnished voice. His character is arrogant, seductive, funny and consistently manipulative and Rhodes misses no opportunity to dominate the stage visually and vocally. The audience lavished their appreciation at the final curtain.

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu is amassing a most impressive list of appearances in major houses across Europe, America, Asia and beyond. His voice is brilliant and open, a potent mix of technical expertise and youthful gleam. His top notes have a sparkling quality which contrasts perfectly his carefully modulated middle and lower registers. He is a fine actor, embodying the passion and joy of the young Faust while convincingly depicting the frailty and disquietude of the aging philosopher.

Kazakh soprano Maria Mudryak is described by OA as “impossibly young”. She is exquisitely beautiful with a diminutive figure and an immensely powerful voice which rang through the vastness of Melbourne’s State Theatre. The reception by the capacity audience was rapturous. From radiant, jewel-like highs to rich and mellifluous lows, she owned the character of Marguerite and we were with her all the way, entirely captivated by her vocal prowess and stage presence.

In trio, duet or solo, these three leading characters were dream casting by OA: a glorious mix of youth, maturity, expertise and innocence which made the performance one of the best yet heard from the company.

As Marguerite’s brother Valentin, Australian Luke Gabbedy was as compelling as any of the principal protagonists. His vocal range is broad and his technical proficiency impressive. He exudes strength and command, rendering his delivery of the curse and death scene in Act Four one of the riveting highlights of the production. The pin-drop silence at the conclusion of his scene was greeted with thrilled appreciation which he was given again at the conclusion of the performance.

Dominica Matthews has a list of credits with OA that is enormous. She is one of the most appreciated singing artists in Australia and justly attracts great praise for the beauty of her mezzo voice and the skill of her acting. Her portrayal of Marthe is hilarious. She receives the news of her husband’s death in the war, dismisses it and sets about a tawdry seduction of Méphistophélès all in the same breath. The direction of this scene gives both Ms Matthews and Mr Rhodes ample opportunity to parade their acting dexterity while eloquently serving the dictates of the musical score.

Since her induction into the OA Young Artists program in 2014, Anna Dowsley has risen through the company to accrue an impressive resume of performances. In the trouser role of Siébel, she excels, receiving strong acclaim for her interpretation of the Act Three Aria as much as her powerful contributions to the many ensemble pieces in which she features. Shane Lowrencev provided a capable comrade to Valentin in his rough-and-tumble portrayal of Wagner.

Faust is a fiendishly good show. It is everything the grandest of operas can be, interpreted in ways which brush away the cobwebs of 19th Century religion and social mores and bring a glittering and enticing story to life through Gounod’s glorious music.

Gregory Pritchard



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