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BWW Review: FAUST Is A Spectacular Work, Not Seen Here For 33 Years

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Saturday 22nd August 2015

State Opera of South Australia is presenting one of the grandest of grand operas, Charles Gounod's Faust, based on Michel Carré's play, Faust et Marguerite, which was adapted from Goethe's Faust. It employs huge forces, with seven principal roles, a ballet, a 46 person chorus, a 75 member symphony orchestra, the marvellous Festival Organ and, of course, all of those people behind the scenes who keep everything running so smoothly.

This is a revival, under Revival Director Bruno Ravella, of the acclaimed 2004 production created by Sir David McVicar, who brought the time forward to that of the composer, setting it during the French period know as La Belle Époque. One of the ballet scenes, complete with the Can Can, is set in the Cabaret L'Enfer, which was actually a real place that had a theme of Hell. The other begins as ballet as one might expect to see it, but degenerates as it progresses. Revival Choreographer, Shane Placentino, injects enormous amounts of energy into the ballets which the dancers give their all in raunchy, sexually charged performances.

Conductor, Kynan Johns, is responsible for a remarkable production, made easier for him by having at his command our marvellous Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the always superb State Opera Chorus, rehearsed by their Chorus Master, the company's CEO and Artistic Director, Timothy Sexton. Impeccable work by both of these groups is a hallmark of State Opera's productions, and this is no exception. The Soldiers' Chorus sounded as though there were a hundred in the chorus.

The work of Set Designer, Charles Edwards, Costume Designer, Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and Lighting Designer, Paule Constable, contributes enormously to the visual power of this production.

The aging Doctor Faust contemplates his life, spent in study and acquiring knowledge, and laments that he has missed out on so much. Méphistophélès appears and offers him youth and another chance. He is reluctant at first, until Méphistophélès show him a young woman, Marguerite, to whom Faust is immediately attracted. Faust then accepts his offer, signing the document that gives his soul to the devil. Marguerite's soldier brother, Valentin, is leaving for the war with his friend Wagner and entrusts Marguerite to the care of Siebel, a shy young man who is actually in love with her.

Méphistophélès then accompanies Faust and provides help in seducing Marguerite. Her neighbour, Martha, is attracted to Méphistophélès and invites him in, but gets a little too keen, wanting to marry him, having been told by him that her husband has died in the war. Marguerite becomes pregnant and is rejected by the townsfolk, but Faust has abandoned her. Her brother, Valentin, returns from the war and challenges Faust, but is killed, with a little help from Méphistophélès.

When next they meet, Faust discovers that Marguerite is in prison for killing her child, and he frees her. She tries to repent, but Méphistophélès interferes. Eventually, though, the forces of good intervene in a traditional deus ex machina, and an archangel appears to put things to rights.

The role of Faust is sung by the marvellous tenor, James Egglestone, giving a sensational performance, conveying all of the emotional extremes through which Faust goes. The very high note in Salut! Demeure chaste et pure proved a little bothersome but, when his voice cracked, he made an instant recovery and continued unfazed; a real professional. Egglestone elegantly fills his performance with nuance as Faust loses his humanity, then slowly regains it, eventually rejecting Méphistophélès.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes is wonderfully imposing as Méphistophélès but it is his way of giving the character great charisma, a seductive quality, which gives this devil his power over Faust. No crash, bang, fire and brimstone for Rhodes. He is the subtle voice in the ear, making an offer, waiting, offering a little more, until his victim accepts. Méphistophélès works through the power of his voice, and what a voice he is given. Teddy Tahu Rhodes is the perfect choice for the role.

Kate Ladner plays Marguerite, beautifully making the transition from the simple, young innocent to the distraught woman, misused, abandoned, ostracised, losing her mind, imprisoned, yet still trying to cling to her faith. Her rendition of the Jewel Song was memorable, but so was her entire performance. Her emotional range, conveyed not just through her singing but also in facial expressions and body language makes this a very special interpretation of the role.

Unfortunately, Michael Honeyman, who has the role of Valentin, had lost his voice on opening night, but still performed in the role physically, mouthing the words, with the voice provided by Jeremy Tatchell, who stepped in at the last moment and was positioned at the edge of the stage. This was a sterling effort by both artists that deserves recognition.

As Valentin's friend, Wagner, Joshua Rowe gives solid support, and as Siébel, a breeches role, Cherie Boogaart brings a warm and sensitive reading to the role. The smaller roles are no less important, and they deserve performers of this high calibre to do them justice. That leaves just one more. Desiree Frahn creates a comically oversexed widow in Martha, adding some lightness to the story as she chases after Méphistophélès as a potential second husband.

Spectacle is a keyword for this production, in every respect, and with only three more performances there is no time to delay in booking tickets. This opera has not been seen in Adelaide for a third of a century so make the most of this opportunity. With Verdi's magnificent Requiem, featuring the State Opera Chorus, being performed on Wednesday and Friday, between performances of the opera, that is another set of tickets to get at the same time. Neither of these productions should be missed.

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From This Author - Barry Lenny