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DVD Button Agresta, Erraught, Todorovitch; Beczala, Markov, Abdrazakov, Rumetz; Philharmonia Chor Vienna, Wiener Philharmoniker, Pérez. Production: von der Thannen. EuroArts 2097038 (2), 180 mins., subtitled

Recordings Faust hdl 1117
Top hat and pointy tails: Beczala in Salzburg
© Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus

MOST THEATERGOERS are familiar with Chekhov’s law: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Reinhard von der Thannen, director and set designer of this Faust from 2016 in Salzburg, breaks that rule at least twice, apparently eager to defy viewers’ expectations. 

First, it’s with Marguerite’s bed. It stands at center stage throughout the scene that traditionally takes place in front of her house. We think we know how this McGuffin is going to be used, especially after Faust sings “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” (note the adjectives) while beside or sprawled on that bed. Others in the scene comically, suggestively mount the bed as well, but then—surprise—at the climactic curtain, it’s left empty. 

A double ramp, forming part of the techno-style unit set (dominated by what seems to be a giant eye), is treated in the same way. The ramp seems to be ready and waiting for the heroine’s final ascent to heaven, but it’s never put to that use. Instead of pearly gates, the backdrop at the end displays the word “Rien” (nothing) in giant letters, the first word Faust sings in the opera, also illustrated on the wall in the opening scene. The message: he’s back where he started; Marguerite is, finally, somewhat secondary.

Riddles and symbolic props dominate the production. In the final scenes, Marguerite clutches a gift-wrapped rectangular package, the size of an infant, symbolizing her pregnancy. The giant skeleton suspended above the march of the returning soldiers is a counterweight to a certain frivolous, Busby Berkeley quality in Giorgio Madia’s choreography and the use of clown costumes in crowd scenes. Similarly silly are the vaudeville hoofing, fist pumps and high fives devised for Faust and Mephisto. 

Much of the drama, nevertheless, is played straight, as if the director, in the hit tunes in particular, were staying out of the way of three especially expert singers—Piotr Beczala (Faust), Maria Agresta (Marguerite) and Alexey Markov (Valentin). They exemplify traditional operatic values of commitment and secure vocalism, although conductor Alejo Pérez indulges the tenor and soprano with the loosest, most leisurely possible tempos in their individual arias. Beczala warms up for a shining, ardent, warmly phrased love scene, while Agresta can soften her full-bodied spinto tone to produce lovely effects, especially in her upper register. In Valentin’s cavatina and death scene, Markov displays a remarkably strong, consistent baritone, apparently capable of Verdi and Wagner roles.

As Mephisto, Ildar Abdrazakov, who has the most elaborate gestures and steps, is hampered by a sometimes vacant lower register and—sadly, like almost all the cast—inept French vowels. Tara Erraught seems inhibited as Siébel, while the chorus performs with striking flexibility. If the opera gets off to a cautious, dreary start, Pérez builds the pace and power gradually until the stirring, forceful finale. He and the singers prove the viability of Gounod’s score despite its overfamiliarity and somewhat mushy piety—and any directorial pranks.—David J. Baker 

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