Faust at the Salzburg FestivalPhoto courtesy of Salzburg Festival / Monika Rittershaus

This year, the Salzburg Festival is staging Faust, the opera by Gounod. I saw the production on Wednesday night. It dominates the opera, the production does, and it cries out to be discussed first. But I will give pride of place to the music, regardless.

In the pit was Alejo Pérez, an Argentinian conductor. It was he who conducted a Massenet opera, Werther, at the festival last year. He had some bobbles and received some boos from the audience. I wrote that the soprano star, Angela Gheorghiu, took him under her wing during the curtain calls. She was protective, as I saw it.

The first note of Faust’s overture, or introduction, was poor. Imprecise. There was imprecision in the rest of the overture, too. And not much interpretive flair. But Pérez has a basic competence, and a basic sympathy with the music.

It’s important not to slum in Faust. You must conduct it as if it were a masterpiece on par with Fidelio or Elektra. You must never condescend to it. Maestro Pérez respected this rule.

Entrances in the orchestra were faulty, time after time. But there was much good playing in that orchestra—the Vienna Philharmonic, after all. I think in particular of a tangy clarinet at the beginning of Act III.

In the title role was Piotr Beczala, the starry Polish tenor. He sang with his customary beauty and élan, although his top was a bit bare and weak. The biggest problem was the hall: the Great Festival Hall. It was simply too big for Beczala. He was too hard to hear.

From my seat, you could hear the violin solo in the aria “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” much better than you could the singer himself. There was an imbalance between concertmaster and tenor (in favor of the former). That should not be.

I wish I could have heard Méphistophélès better, too. He was Ildar Abdrazakov, the starry Russian bass. This problem aside, Abdrazakov was his usual smooth, charismatic self. A bass has many devilish opportunities, and this one is taking advantage of them.

Our soprano, singing Marguerite, was Maria Agresta, an Italian. She has much to commend. She is a lyric soprano with power (just what you need for Marguerite, and many another role). Her middle voice is strong. She sings with focus. She sings with intelligence, too.

In the Jewel Song, Agresta showed decent coloratura. She also showed control of dynamics. And high notes are no problem for her.

Here’s a complaint: her final B in the aria didn’t fly. It was spot-on. But it was earthbound. Another way to put that is unracing.

Here’s another complaint: Signora Agresta sings French comme une italienne. But we should know the words regardless, or at least the story. And la signora was a credit to the evening.

Valentin was Alexey Markov, a Russian baritone. Siébel was an Irish mezzo, Tara Erraught. (I haven’t written the phrase “Irish mezzo” since writing about the wonderful Ann Murray, not to be confused with the Canadian pop singer.) Both singers were adequate to the tasks.

And notable in her small part was Marie-Ange Todorovitch, the French mezzo singing Marthe. An obvious professional.

I’ve been putting off the production, but it’s time to face the music, so to speak. Salzburg’s production of Faust is the work of Reinhard von der Thannen, an Austrian director. He is no doubt very smart. But I’ll tell you something.

A few seasons ago, the Metropolitan Opera staged a Faust that was set in the nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos. I will never forget the fighting of a duel in the lab. Really? A duel at Los Alamos, during the Manhattan Project? Fighting with swords, in that era?

Anyway, that Faust was a model of comprehensibility compared with Herr Thannen’s.

The curtain opens to a big sign in the middle of the stage: “Rien” (French for “Nothing”). The first word of the opera is, in fact, “Rien.” According to a program essay, Thannen decided to place the word on the stage “to give the audience food for thought and provide constant mental provocation.”

Fair enough.

The stage is white, sterile, clinical, creepy. Again, I’ll quote the essay: “It is entirely white, impersonal, functional, open for light of all colours and at the same time itself a non-colour.”

Townsfolk and others are clowns, with bald heads and powdered faces. They are all the same, automatons, I guess. To me, they sometimes came off as Bond-villain minions.

When Méphistophélès sings about the golden calf, a female figure comes out of a bag (as I remember). She has what seems to be the top of a burka on her head. That comes off, and she is instead wearing a sparkly outfit, covering her entire body, including her head. Méphistophélès simulates copulation with her.

This is the kind of production for which an audience member needs Cliff’s Notes. There is that program essay, written by a philosophy professor in Hamburg. This is the kind of essay that says, “. . . a more plausible pair of lovers is Valentin and Marguerite, who form a natural unity more torn apart by war than thwarted by the incest taboo.”

I had an old southern friend who, when exasperated by somebody, said, “I’m ain’t studyin’ him no more.” I’m not studying this production anymore. Perhaps it is beyond me. I accept that much intellectual care went into it. I’m not sure about the theatrical, or operatic, result.

Many times, I have stated a rule for productions: Does the director seem to like the opera, and is he trying to support it, whether we approve of what he’s doing or not? Or does the director seem to dislike the opera? Is he mocking or otherwise undermining it?

I don’t know what the answer is, in this case.

I do know this: Faust is a Christian allegory. And that is something relatively foreign to the opera world today. Our philosophy professor, writing her program essay, asks, “How can Gounod’s version of the Faust story become a piece for the present day?” Oh, it is, dear one. For today, yesterday, tomorrow, and every other day. You don’t have to do much to it. Just perform it.

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