The child murderess drags a guillotine onto the stage, hops on, the blade whizzes down, and her head rolls onto the floor only to be picked up by a pious procession pleased to have found a new relic.
Thus ends the strangest production of “Faust” that I’ve ever seen.
Gounod’s 1859 opera was supposed to be a highlight of the Paris fall season, not least because it has Roberto Alagna in the title role. Instead, the production is almost done in by the bizarre ideas of the director (Jean-Louis Martinoty) and the set designer (Johan Engels).
Things started to go wrong before the premiere. A week before opening night, conductor Alain Lombard threw in the towel, claiming that he couldn’t get along with a star who was late for rehearsals and took liberties with the music.
Alagna countered by accusing the 71-year-old conductor of being not up to the job due to ill health.
Insiders suspect that the tenor favored Lombard’s young colleague Alain Altinoglu with whom he had already sung the role in Vienna. Altinoglu took over on short notice.
Then the unions stepped in. Whenever a special event comes up, Paris stagehands come down with strike fever. The premiere had to be performed without the sets, which, in retrospect, proved to be a blessing.
The first scene, Faust’s study, looks wonderful. It’s a circular library with spiral staircases not unlike the much- lamented reading room of the Bibliotheque Nationale.
While Faust is mimed by an actor, Alagna sings his lines hidden in a giant test tube from which he emerges rejuvenated after the old man has signed his agreement with the devil.
From there, things go downhill.
The library, with slightly altered details, remains the backdrop for everything that follows -- the fair with the townspeople, Marguerite’s garden and bedroom, the church, the Walpurgis Night in the Harz Mountains and finally the prison.
Although the costumes (Yan Tax) are on the traditional side, you need a lot of imagination to empathize with the characters. Most scenes are depressingly unpoetic; some border on the grotesque.
The director himself often seems lost in the clutter. The singers appear and disappear for no particular reason or aimlessly climb up and down the staircases.
Whenever an original idea pops up, it tends to be of dubious taste. When Faust raves about regaining the sexual power of youth, Mephistopheles rams a cane between his legs. After the night of love, a red stain in Marguerite’s underwear reveals what happened.
In the program, Martinoty wonders whether Faust really abandoned his plan to kill himself and suggests that his adventures were, in fact, the hallucinations of a dying man.
Death appears in various guises: When Faust admires Marguerite’s “demeure chaste et pure,” a white-faced fiddler crawls out from underneath her bed.
Presenting the plot as a fantasy of one of the characters has been a directorial fad for quite some time. Occasionally, the trick works, as it did in Harry Kupfer’s sensational Bayreuth “Flying Dutchman.” In most cases, it doesn’t.
The musical side is better. Alagna, more heroic than lyrical, is in splendid voice and fearlessly attacks his top notes. Inva Mula’s Marguerite produces lovely sounds; only in her upper register does a drop of vinegar seep in.
Paul Gay is an elegant Mephistopheles, more baritone than bass. His low notes are virtually inaudible. Tassis Christoyannis is a sturdy Valentin, Angelique Noldus a charming Siebel.
Altinoglu, though he offers no special insights, does allow the orchestra to shine in the woodwind passages. The ballet music is cut.
Incidentally, Susanna Margaretha Brandt, the waitress from Frankfurt and real-life model for Gounod’s heroine, was executed with an axe, not guillotined. “Accompanied by encouraging shouts from the clergy,” says the official record, “her head was happily chopped off with a single blow.” Rating: **.
“Faust” is in repertory at the Opera Bastille through Oct. 25. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr or +33-1-7125- 2524.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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