David McVicar´s 2004 staging of Faust for the Royal Opera, London was televised at the time, and now released on DVD. As ad admirer, virtually without exception, of McVicars eerily aesthetic productions,of which Salome, Nozze, Tales of Hoffmann, Magic Flute, Rigoletto and Poppea are only a few examples, I was surprisinly rather disappointed with his Faust staging.
The premises as such, were enticing: David McVicar sets his Faust around the time of the Franco-Prussian war (1870) in Gounod´s Paris. Faust is simply the aged Gounod, torn between religion and theater (McVicar is "profoundly anticlerical" according to himself) and (according to McVicar) questioning his sexuality. Both elements of Gounod´s character are clearly projected in this staging.
Méphistophéles appears a many-faced trickster with a magic coffin and numerous costume changes, including appearing in drag-costume in a Walpurgis night, which begins as a parody on the ballet Giselle and ends like an orgy of sex and violence. Most of the time, however, Méphistophéles looks like a Pirate of the Caribbean.
Marguerite, the aspiring socialite (Angela Gheorghiu with blonde wig), appears in the overstuffed Cabaret l´Enfer only to contrast with an extremely dull and bare setting for the second-act scene surrounding her house. In the end (if I understand McVicar rightly), Faust simply returns to his old self, now wiser after this apparent daydream/nightmare with a phantasy Méphistophéles.
No matter how eloquent McVicar´s ideas look on paper or how convincingly he explains his concept (which he does, by the way), the result comes out as appallingly overstuffed grand opera, in the worst sense of the word without a clear sense of direction, much unlike David McVicar´s usual sense of eery elegance.
That said, it was musically a rather superb performance. While Roberto Alagna may have trouble with the topnotes, he delivered a convincing performance with intensely committed acting (though he was in better vocal shape in Orange).
Angela Gheorghiu certainly has a beautiful voice, which I find optimal in a part such as Marguerite. It will then be a matter of taste whether taking offence that her acting and manners just appear plastified and artificial from A-Z. We see Angela Gheorghiu, the diva. Not Marguerite, the character, no matter how fervently she explaine the development of the character in a back-stage interview.
Ultimately, however, any performance of Faust centers around Mèphistophéles. In my book, Bryn Terfel was a disappointment with neither the vocal or physical menace or seductiveness essential for the role. In all fairness I should mention that most audiences and critics disagreed hailing Terfel´s performance as superb. As a Pirate from the Caribbean, he was, however hilarious, and his stage charisma is unquestionable. On DVD, I vastly prefer Ruggero Raimondi. Or I´d wait for René Pape.
The supporting roles were equally stellar: Simon Keenlyside a solid Valentin, while Sophie Koch to my surprise sounded overstretched as Siebel.
Antonio Pappano generated quite an amount of excitement in the pit, however ideally I´d wish for a denser sound, more along the lines of James Levines interpretation at the Met around the same time.
Faust is appallingly represented on DVD. Ken Russell´s Vienna production (with Ruggero Raimodi as Méphistopheles) seems the best alternative, though by no means overly exciting.
The church scene (Angela Gheorghiu and Bryn Terfel):
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3= average):
Roberto Alagna: 4
Angela Gheorghiu: 4-5
Bryn Terfel: 4
Simon Keenlyside: 4
Sophie Koch: 4
David McVicar: 3-4
Antonio Pappano: 4
Overall impression: 4