Devil take the prima donnas!

David McVicar's Faust returns to Covent Garden - but this time not as a star vehicle
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The Independent Culture

Despite the megawattage of Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Bryn Terfel, Covent Garden's Faust got a very mixed press when it premiered in June. Some critics dismissed it as spectacle with no heart: a mere vehicle for the stars.

Well, it certainly glittered: the Cabaret d'enfer was pure Folies Bergère; the Walpurgisnacht orgy was as gross as the director David McVicar could make it. Terfel's Méphistophélès was a protean serpent, appearing at one stage like the Queen of the Night, in a décolleté ballgown; Alagna's transformation into his youthful self was heralded by a cartwheel so unexpected that it took the breath away.

But was this really a travesty of Gounod's intentions? As one who enjoyed the show, I'd say no, and not only because it was superbly sung. Gounod's score runs the gamut of the emotions - from rum-ti-tum marches to piercing pathos - and its inbred elegance keeps it on an aristocratic plane. And if the plot is Gothic melodrama, we moderns should enjoy it as we enjoy The Phantom of the Opera: by not taking it too seriously.

Next week, this Faust returns with a Méphistophélès who regards the drama as quite topical. "We still believe in God and the Devil as immortals," says John Tomlinson. "Superstition still rules, so they retain their potency. The story of Marguerite is happening a thousand times a day all over the world - a girl abused by a superior, cynical, richer person, followed by pregnancy and abortion. And Faust is like Von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, coming to the end of his life and finding that all that matters to him is youth, sex and love, despite his intellectual achievements."

As the revival director Lee Blakeley confirms, this will be, in effect, a new show. Last time round, it seems, the stars' egos got in the way of directorial intentions: Gheorghiu wasn't prepared to make her entrance carrying a tray of beers, for example, and delegated the task to a chorus member. The new Marguerite is Elena Kelessidi - more delicate and vulnerable than Gheorghiu - who will indeed carry that tray. "This time, there's more ensemble playing," says Blakeley. "We're getting closer to the heart of the work."

A thought that Tomlinson echoes. "Angela and Roberto - and Bryn, to a certain extent - are very much prima donnas, and I've always had difficulty with prima-donna shows. That's probably why I've ended up with the Germanic repertoire. With Wagner, you get very good artists but never prima donnas: everyone has respect for each other. Angela and Roberto are wonderful singers, but... that was a different show. I think of myself simply as a singing actor, and I try to be a good one."

As the world's top Wagnerian bass, Tomlinson is, of course, a great one: here, he pushes Faust in a more interesting direction. He's as much comic chameleon as Terfel, but with gravitas; he comes on like a world-weary actor-manager, and, in that notorious ballgown, is more Queen Victoria than Queen of the Night.

'Faust', Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020-7304 4000) Monday to 28 October