The Devil Steals the Limelight
In a new production of ‘Faust’ at the Mariinsky, Ildar Abdrazakov shines as a world-weary Mephistopheles. Atmospherically, it is Goethe who wins the battle in the new Mariinsky production, much to the credit of the orchestra.
Published: April 30, 2013 (Issue # 1757)
Sergei Semishkur (l) and Yekaterina Goncharova (r) as the star-crossed lovers of Gounod’s melodramatic reading of Goethe’s ‘Faust.’
Isabella Bywater, who had her debut as an opera director at the Mariinsky Theater on Friday with a production of Charles Gounod’s “Faust,” could not have made a more German production if she had tried.
A century ago, “Faust” reigned as the world’s most popular French opera. Today it is second only to Bizet’s “Carmen.”
Internationally, directors have enjoyed experimenting with the opera’s subject matter. As the opera is seen so frequently on the world’s most respected stages, directors compete to outdo each other in a search for the most unorthodox approach to the story of an aging scholar who strikes a bargain with the devil, selling his soul in exchange for youth and the chance to be loved by a young woman. As a result, Dez McAnuff’s 2010 production for the Metropolitan Opera in New York used the deal as a metaphor for the creation and testing of the atomic bomb in the mid-20th century. In his production, audiences were treated to the unexpected scene of a scientist and Mephistopheles striking their deal in the laboratory.
In 2012, the creative team of directors Rob Kearley and Ran Arthur Braun, who staged “Faust” for Opera North in the UK, with help from video artist Lillevan, chose a political angle. The artistic trio took its inspiration from the presidential race in the United States, which was in full swing at the time. Their “Faust” had a distinctly American flavor: it was relocated to the US and allowed the directors to direct much stinging irony toward the political environment of the moment, implying that falsity, lies, manipulations and dirty deals were commonplace.
Bywater avoided plunging into any such allusions and opted for a traditional interpretation, playing the card of sincerity which bordered on the naive.
It is well known that a large portion of the Russian opera-going public is conservative. Audiences often have difficulty accepting productions in which directors set the original work in a contemporary context. This rejection usually has nothing to do with the success or failure of these endeavors per se; it simply means that a modern context for a classical opera is hard for many people to digest.
With this valuable bit of information in mind, Bywater’s show was bound to get, at the very least, appreciation from the crowd, which it certainly did on the opening night.
Much to Bywater’s credit, the director turned this sentimental operatic bestseller into a production that is more philosophical than the score would suggest. Gounod created a very 19th-century, ultimately romantic score that heavily tends towards melodrama, compared to the sober novel by Goethe on which it is based.
In the new staging, the director toyed intelligently with the divine and the devilish, and one of her most successful decisions was to have Mephistopheles assume the role of a priest in a deserted church.
The charismatic bass Ildar Abdrazakov stole the show as a manipulative, ironic and world-weary Mephistopheles, lurking in the background and making triumphant, perfectly timed entrances.
While Gounod treats Mephistopheles as an almost earthly, ironic character, not nearly as sinister and chillingly penetrating as Goethe’s devil, Abdrazakov portrays a multivalent devil, who embodies the qualities of the sarcastic and agile Mephistopheles as devil with a smile conceived by the French composer as well as the pitiless, gruesome, somewhat Gothic Prince of Darkness. Abdrazakov’s devil is a double-edged sword, and the duality that he creates is one of the show’s greatest assets.
Goncharova (l) and Abdrazakov (c) in one of the most impressive scenes from the Mariinsky Theater’s new ‘Faust.’
On opening night, his immaculate, gorgeous, darkly shaded phrasings swiftly changed from velvet to metal. This alone is a strong enough justification for “Faust” to enter the repertoire of the Mariinsky Theater. His considerable capacities allowed him to sing so that the audience felt the piercing gaze of the devil as he stood atop the altar and caused the sorrowful, pregnant Marguerite to faint.
On the whole, Yekaterina Goncharova brought a touching naivety and vivaciousness to her interpretation of Marguerite, who initially appears on stage in a school uniform. This image, supported by Bywater’s casual comparison of Marguerite and Vladimir Nabokov’s character Lolita, prompted some Russian critics to look for strong parallels between the two works. However, there is no solid ground to support the analogy, other than that there is a young girl and an aged man at the heart of the plot, which is too weak a link for a substantial and valid comparison.
Goncharova was tangibly more convincing in the lyrical parts that naturally suited the singer’s musicality. In one of the opera’s most challenging episodes, the temptation scene, where Marguerite tries on a pearl necklace, Goncharova thrived dramatically but appeared to lack the vocal spark and range the part demands, with a coloratura that is expected to shine and seduce as much as the jewels she is trying on.
The dramatic scenes proved even more difficult for Goncharova, particularly Marguerite’s mad scene, brought on by the tragic consequence of her seduction: her judgment by society and the death of her brother Valentine.
Sergei Semishkur, in the role of Dr. Faust, revealed just the right amount of spiritual weakness to be lured by the devil’s promises. Semishkur delivered his best performance when the doctor is overcome by the delayed remorse that suddenly descends on him at Marguerite’s deathbed, tearing him apart. Vocally convincing, Semishkur was a reliable stage partner for Abdrazakov’s Mephistopheles.
It was obvious that “Faust” was Bywater’s first outing as a stage director, and her background as a designer logically influenced her work. The elements of her design were expressive — from a slit in the sky to the gigantic tulips that burst through the roofs as the romance between Marguerite and Faust blossomed, and flagged to the ground when the consequences of the devilish bargain started to emerge. At times, the director and the designer Nicky Shaw tended to clutter the stage, as during the cemetery scenes, when mystical pantomime characters wearing masks decorated the stage with masses of flowers, making things unnecessarily busy.
However, Bywater peppered her postmodernist production with refined allusions. The pregnant Marguerite carries a striking resembles to the heroine of Jan van Eyck’s 1434 painting “The Arnolfini Portrait.” And when we see her in a church standing by the altar, her pose is reminiscent to the iconic image of the Virgin Mary expecting a child.
Atmospherically, it is Goethe who wins the battle in the new Mariinsky production, and this is largely due to the magnificent work of the Mariinsky orchestra, which created a very cohesive performance and made the plot darker, deeper, more intense and, ultimately, more universal. Opening night showcased some of the orchestra’s most mature and vibrant performances, from the remarkable honey-toned sound of the lyrical scenes to the mercilessly razor-sharp strings in the scenes of requital.
The Mariinsky Theater’s new production of “Faust” will be performed next on May 13 at 8 p.m.