Estonia Gounod Faust. Soloists, Estonian National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Vello Pähn (conductor). Estonian National Opera, Tallinn. 20.9. 2012 (Premiere)
Doctor Faust: Luc Rober
Méphistophélès: Priit Volmer
Marguerite: Anne Wik Larssen
Valentin: Rauno Elp
Siébel: Helen Lokuta
Wagner: Mart Laur
Old Faust: Mart Madiste
Catherine: Kätlin Truus
Directed by Dmitri Bertman
Designer: Ene-Liis Semper
Choreographer: Edvald Smirnov
Dmitri Bertman, who runs the Helikon-Opera in Moscow, has established a solid reputation as one of the most thrilling directors of his generation. I have seen several productions by him in Stockholm and Tallinn and he often comes up with surprising ideas, sometimes controversial but never streamlined and definitely never dull. It is true that I at times have found him overloading the productions with ideas that tended to obscure the story, often with side-plots and background action that instead of illuminating managed to complicate the understanding. It is quite natural that viewers react differently to readings that are off the beaten track and this new Faust made me, initially at least, feel strong aversion against the production, hence the somewhat drastic heading to this review.
The very opening was confusing with a clown seated by a piano on the stage long before the performance started. He – or she – later played with the orchestra, sometimes getting lost and turning over leaves in desperation. A clown in Faust? Well, the clown turned out to be Siébel and Helen Lokuta, whom I have greatly admired ever since I saw her as Maddalena in Rigolettofive years ago, once again turned in a masterly reading, her body language so expressive and telling, but I still don’t understand the point. There were other things during the first half I couldn’t stomach either. Several scenes were plain farce, fun but indecorous and the ballet sequence with the male dancers in minimal outfit was bordering on the obscene. After the interval, when the tragedy is outspoken, things become totally different, totally serious and I got the idea that Bertman’s caprices in the first half are illustrations of Faust’s mentality. In an interview in the programme book Bertman says: ‘Faust’s reason to regain his youth seems strange to me. As a learned man, Doctor and lawyer, he does not ask Méphistophélès to give him back his youth to make another discovery or write another book or create something that still needs to be invented. He longs for a youthful body only to seduce Marguerite …’ So the frivolous behaviour is symbolic and makes the ‘butchering’ more understandable – but I’m not yet wholly convinced.
There is ‘butchering’ in another respect too, since the score is rather heavily cut. Thus the role of Marthe is gone – no great loss and it heightens the dramatic temperature. Instead a new role is created, Catherine, a mute role who is Faust’s new girlfriend, as the cast list tells us, whom he necks candidly, to make him an even more forbidding character.
An interesting idea is to have two Fausts, in the opening scene the old Faust, who then appears as observer during the course of the drama. But why is Siébel, when he unmasks, suddenly a girl? As I hinted at in the beginning, Dmitri Bertman is unpredictable and self-willed.
Musically the level is very high. The premiere was conducted by Vello Pähn, who from 1 August is the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor after Arvo Volmer. I have nothing but praise for his reading of this score, often criticised as being too sugary. Pähn managed to inject a dose of insulin to keep the sugar-balance on a healthy level.
In the title role Canadian guest Luc Robert sported a fine tenor with power and brilliance, lacking the last ounce of honeyed lyricism, but receiving ovations for his cavatina with a ringing high C. His Marguerite was the young Norwegian soprano Anne Wik Larssen, whom I heard at Dalhalla a few weeks ago as a lovely Mimi during the opera gala there. Now in her first big opera role she more than fulfilled my expectations. She was also a convincing actor and sang her big set pieces with touching simplicity and frail innocence. But it was in the finale that she impressed the most with glowing brilliance and marvellous beauty of tone. This is a singer with tremendous potential. Priit Volmer added another triumph to his growing list of memorable characters. His Méphistophélès was demonic, with long black hair and a nasty laughter. Rauno Elp’s Valentin was maybe a bit over the top as far as the acting went but he sang better than I have heard him the last couple of years with dramatic élan. Mart Madiste was good as the old Faust and Mart Laur made the most of Wagner’s ungrateful role.
Butchered this Faust may be but in the end it is a highly individual and thought-provoking production, blessed with some truly great singing.