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19 February, 2015

Faust at Sydney Opera House ... opera at its very best!

Faust by Gounod at the Sydney Opera House Tuesday 17th Feb 2015
This was the most totally enjoyable and enthralling opera performance I have seen in Australia for years.  Few of the New York Mets recent performances I have seen exceeded the quality and quantity of this rendition of Gounods Faust by veteran David McVicar and Charles Edwards (sets). 
It was like old times when we often saw a clever production with high quality orchestra under Guillaume Tourniaire.  But this time we also had top class singers from here and overseas with some very special high points both dramatically and vocally.  Most every production detail came from the libretto. 
This opera production has EVERYTHING when in doubt, add more!  Love scene, soldiers’ chorus, mad scene, serious ballet, religious saviour scene, devil-takes-all, wine-from-water, blood from stone, group sex, sword fight, death scenes, etc plus lots and lots of beautiful singing.  And much of it is can belto - from the absurd reductio school of (1) bel canto, (2) can belto, (3) cant belto, (4) cant canto.  But devil do’th. 
The production was dominated by a massive mobile set of stairs leading to a pipe organ high on stage right.  Sets moved through a small chapel, village square, adjoining town houses, massive church centrepiece, interiors and more.  Costumes were colourful, traditional and often ravishing.  Lighting was atmospheric and meaningful.  A discussion in the interval with a psychiatrist informed me that Goethe's story is really just about all of us as we get older ... we would like to relive previous pleasures, we would like to be young again, we are constantly tempted by devils of all types.  Yet it is a fantasy. 
Teddy Tahu-Rhodes may be the most over-exposed baritone in Australia, much amplified in musical comedies.  Yet he returns to opera and sings and acts at the highest standard, and rarely with as many costume changes as this Mefisto.  Most dramatic and unexpected perhaps was the drag devil dressed suddenly in a large black gown with low cleavage and bustle, hosting a raunchy hot spot cabaret in Paris, complete with Tour Eiffel proscenium. 
New American Tenor Michael Fabiano is indeed impressive - starting with an almost unbelievable transformation from frail, suicidal geriatric to Hollywood handsome tenor.  And he can sing.  High, low, fast, slow, loud, soft he has it all.  And with breath control to manage any legato line and more.  Salut, demeure chaste et pure was beautifully interpreted.  Not a hint of falsetto in this aria yet he used a customised soprano range to advantage elsewhere in Act 3.  On his web page Fabiano sings the almost unsingable aria (resurrected by Richard Bonynge) from Act III of Lucrezia Borgia.  And unlike each previous rendition I have heard, it is supremely beautiful to the fiendishly difficult last notes. 
Australias Nicole Car sings Marguerite with élan and ease, soaring to the highest notes after expressive legato singing.  Her trill is not like Sutherlands but nobodys is!  And unlike the latter, Car can look young, virtuous and virginal.  Her Jewel song was deservingly well received as were her tonsillar hystrionics towards the end of the opera.  The operas final trio was absolutely and heavenly elating, including organ and ethereal choir (unseen in the auditorium from darkened loges C and Z). 
Giorgio Caoduro sings the ill-fated soldier brother Valentin with a most professional delivery.  His early party-stopper Avant de quitter ces lieux was splendid as was his dramatic death scene in act IV.  He showed fine portamento and never appeared beyond his substantial limits. 
Character roles Siebel, Wagner and Marthe were all well acquitted by company regulars Anna Dowsley, Richard Anderson and Dominica Matthews. 
I often find ballets in operas become boring and repetitive not so in this performance which had extensive and explicit dances in Act V. 
I am still concerned about vocal damage from second daily opera singing by the four principal singers - there are 3 performances in the first five days!  Does the company seriously think that centuries of experience and Maria Callas example were just wrong as they frequently break the two lay-day rule?  Animals have the RSPCA but singers don't even have a strong union!  Agents have a short term conflict of interest.  I spoke to a board member and retired singer during the single interval.  He agreed that he never sang more than two operas in a week, a testament to his career of 30+ years at the highest level with some of the greatest singers of the 20th century.  Yes, I may sound like a cracked record, cracked record, cracked record ...
My advice if you are in Sydney in the next three weeks: just get a ticket for this Faust despite a full house on opening night, loges B and X were virtually empty (sold only on the day of the performance and less than $50 per seat I believe).
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
For those keen on cantorial singing (and Les Mis) try: