Devil take them

Untimely return to Victorian values in Welsh National Opera's 50th anniversary revival of Gounod's Faust
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The Independent Culture
Since Gounod's Faust is being restaged by Welsh National Opera to mark the company's inaugural production 50 years ago, it's natural that historical factors should be an issue in both Christopher Alden's staging and Sir Charles Mackerras's conducting. In the programme book, Mackerras defends the use of Chorley's dear old translation and the inclusion of both the Walpurgis Night scene and Valentine's and Siebel's extra arias, on grounds of authentic style: and Alden claims to have placed the work in the context of its own era.

But much of this is poppycock. Alden's context is the usual parodied Victorianism of the director's manual, all top hats and black crinolines and black Renoir parasols - oh! what hypocrites they were then, allowing a young girl's downfall (instead of calling in the social services), then turning her into a plaster saint. Curiously enough, both Alden and Mackerras seem to think that Gounod's Margarita is damned (but then, Alden is also apparently under the impression that The Rite of Spring is about the corruption of innocence).

As for the music, why worry about authenticity in a work that was repeatedly reconstituted with Gounod's sanction? Lovers of the piece will be only too glad to hear most of it apart from the ballet, and won't be too bothered about the "wrong" placing of the Church Scene (before the duel), or the inclusion of "French version" bits alongside "English version" bits. They may be surprised to meet Margarita's baby and to witness its summary execution, appropriately by incineration, along with a few other graphic Aldenisms which reveal that the Victorians (unlike us, of course) were repressed. But then, Bruno Schwengl's black-curtained semi-circular set does have something of the interrogation room about it, and not only when the pregnant Margarita is made to sit on a table under a high-wattage lamp - another very authentic Victorian effect - with the chorus leering at her through the curtains.

Happily, Janice Watson overrides this hyper-modern assault on the agreeable demureness of pre-Paglia womanhood. Her Margarita is genuinely vulnerable, touchingly fallible, and deliciously well sung, with sparkle in the Jewel Song and easy lyricism in the love music. She has to contend with some very hairy, Durer-esque samples of German provincial masculinity (more repressions coming out of the woodwork). But here, too, the singing is high class: Paul Charles Clarke a fluent, rangy Faust, troubled by the lowest notes, but in his element in the Act 3 Cavatina and exquisite last duet; Alastair Miles a virile, menacing Mephistopheles, brilliant in the "Calf of Gold", but capable also of a precarious espressivo which is even more chilling; and Jason Howard, stolidly eloquent as the baritone Valentine. But Joanne Edworthy has little chance as Siebel, a trouser role that evidently embarrasses Alden, and Susan Gorton's Martha is a too heavily satirised governess figure to make much effect.

Mackerras, special pleading aside, adjusts Gounod to modern taste, by the simple expedient of conducting it with vivacity, movement, and a transparency of texture that recall Wagner's two-edged remark that Gounod was the first person to have made Faust delightful. The orchestra hardly puts a foot wrong, and the chorus - as they pop backwards and forwards through Alden's drapery - never forget that they are, and are meant to be, precisely an old-fashioned operatic chorus.

n Further performances: 26 April, Cardiff New (01222 878889); 1, 4 May, Swansea Grand (01792 475715); 8, 11 May, Liverpool Empire (0151-709 1555); 15, 18, 22 May Birmingham Hippodrome (0121-622 7486); then touring to Oxford, Bristol, Southampton and Llandudno

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