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Canadian Opera Company's Faust

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
02/01/2007 -  and 4, 6, 9, 11, 14, 17, 21, 24 February
Charles Gounod: Faust
David Pomeroy (Faust), Ana Ibarra (Marguerite), Egils Silins (Méphistophélès), Brett Polegato (Valentin), Lauren Segal (Siébel), Peter McGillivray (Wagner), Susan Gorton (Marthe)

Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor)
Nicholas Muni (Director and Production Designer), Thomas C. Hase (Lighting Designer), Serge Bennathan (Choreographer), Sandra Horst (Chorusmaster)

Once a staple of the repertory, Gounod’s Faust hasn’t been performed by the COC since 1985, so this production gives us a chance to see if absence indeed does make the heart grow fonder. And in an attempt to brush away the cobwebs, director-designer Nicholas Muni has devised a visual collage of modernist sets with historicist costumes, as well as innovations in the narrative undreamed of by Goethe or the librettists, Jules Barbier and Michael Carré.

One departure from the usual is a subplot involving the changing relationship between Faust and Méphistophélès. In the opening scene, Mephisto injects Faust with some of his own blood, thus turning the aged professor into a dapper young man. As this happens, Mephisto picks up Faust’s old man’s cane while Faust adopts the demon’s stylish walking stick. This motif is developed further in the second half of the evening, where Faust has become the picture of a lank-haired coke-snorting hipster in leather garb who seems to be sprouting horns, while Mephisto is visibly aging. By the final scene, Faust has sprouted red horns and Mephisto has become the stooped grey-haired man that Faust was at the beginning. Mephisto has apparently given over his power to Faust, who seems destined to take a ruling position in the underworld. There is undoubtedly a theatrical element to this innovation even though it turns the meaning of Faustian bargain on its head.

The main set for the work features large grafitti on the walls from Dr. Faust’s scientific notebooks. The set slides into separate pieces which move about and change colours and thus adapt to most of the several scenes required. This welcome flow is disrupted in the second half when the curtain comes down and a bleeding chunk of the Walpurgis Night ballet is played as an entre-acte introducing the witches’ scene. The music fails to be long enough to cover the scene change and we are left sitting in the dark for a few frustrating moments. When the curtain finally rises the stage has been converted into a huge mauve bed - very Hugh Hefner-esque - in which lie numerous alluring women. Visually it’s a knock-out, but the break in continuity is unfortunate. And I’m sure that choreographer Serge Bennathan and his lively troupe would love to perform to the Walpurgis music (as was done so effectively in David McVicar’s 2004 production at Covent Garden). In the earlier carnival scene, the dancers create a colouful and lively set of diversions using a huge “Mother Earth Puppet” which doubles as a maypole.

David Pomeroy (Faust) was a member of the COC’s training group, the Ensemble Studio, a few seasons ago. One memorable performance he gave was of the Apprentice in Billy Budd. It’s quite a leap from comprimario roles (no matter how well done) to a romantic lead - but while studying under retired tenor Ermanno Mauro he has successfully made the leap. His lowest notes could use a bit more polish, but the voice has an attractive gleam, and the higher the notes the better it gets. Ana Ibarra is a more-than-acceptable Marguerite. A couple of major notes go a bit wild (some people like that), but she has all the power needed for the big final trio. Egils Silins as Méphistophélès starts out as more mischievous than menacing, and his two arias are rather hard work. I kept wishing for a richer, more well-oiled vice - Philip Ens perhaps? Brett Polegato makes the most consistently powerful vocal impression of the evening. I would prefer a bit more relaxed suavity in his opening aria, although the intensity he injects into it is in keeping with the characterization. His dying curse of his transgressing sister was the dramatic highpoint of the evening. Lauren Segel is just fine as Siébel.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has a ruminative approach to the work, giving us a lot more than just a parade of pretty set-pieces. The soldier’s chorus is less jaunty than usual but this also corresponds to the staging which portrays the returning troops as not just battle-scarred but badly chewed up. A blood-stained Valentin pulls a cart containing Wagner’s corpse, which is duly placed into a coffin. Once Valentin has been dispatched by Faust, his corpse is then placed on top of it. We then get to see Marguerite kill her baby: she carries it into the church and Mephisto makes a lunge for it; Faust snatches it from her and she picks up her dead brother’s sword. Intending to stab Faust, she stabs the baby instead. Its body is then placed next to the coffin.

In the prison scene it is made clear that Marguerite’s memories of Faust are definitely of the carnal kind. This helps counter her image as a boring goody-goody, but the crotch-groping is not a pretty sight. The performers actually look a bit embarrassed.

For Marguerite’s apotheosis the stage is encased in billowing white silk while the chorus sings from the 5th Ring. This is the first time the chorus has been so placed in the new theatre, and the effect is both powerful and mysterious.

All in all, this a visually striking, musically solid and thought-provoking production. Gounod’s work does not have to become the chestnut it once was, but it is nice to see it back.

Michael Johnson



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