Faust, Royal Opera House, London<br/>The Enchantress, Grange Park Opera, Hampshire<br/>Cherevichki/ Cosi fan Tutte, Garsington Opera, Oxfordshire

Erotica, narcotica and cartwheels
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The Independent Culture

Ten days ago, bewitched by the bustle and glamour of a major first night, I was positively thrilled by David McVicar's new production of Faust. Thrilled by hearing Roberto Alagna in the language and repertoire that suits him best. Thrilled by Angela Gheorghiu's plangent Marguerite, by Simon Keenlyside's elegant Valentin, by Sophie Koch's sympathetic Siébel and Bryn Terfel's charismatic Méphistophéles. Thrilled by the dancers, the sets, the costumes and the spectacle. Thrilled by an orchestra whose playing has, over the past year, exceeded all expectations, a chorus whose tone and focus and diction are matchless, and a conductor whose virtuosity straddles repertoire as diverse as Shostakovich, Verdi and Gounod with miraculous ease and authenticity. So why do I feel so sceptical now?

Ten days ago, bewitched by the bustle and glamour of a major first night, I was positively thrilled by David McVicar's new production of Faust. Thrilled by hearing Roberto Alagna in the language and repertoire that suits him best. Thrilled by Angela Gheorghiu's plangent Marguerite, by Simon Keenlyside's elegant Valentin, by Sophie Koch's sympathetic Siébel and Bryn Terfel's charismatic Méphistophéles. Thrilled by the dancers, the sets, the costumes and the spectacle. Thrilled by an orchestra whose playing has, over the past year, exceeded all expectations, a chorus whose tone and focus and diction are matchless, and a conductor whose virtuosity straddles repertoire as diverse as Shostakovich, Verdi and Gounod with miraculous ease and authenticity. So why do I feel so sceptical now?

In purely musical terms you are unlikely to hear a better contemporary account of Faust than this. With the exception of Gheorghiu's slightly dry start to Ah! je ris de me voir, all five main leads sing strongly, persuasively and stylishly. As has been the case throughout the 2003/4 Covent Garden season, the orchestral playing is likewise unparalleled. Virtuosic instrumental solos unfurl like Art Deco vines and the balance between religiosity and carnality is beautifully judged. Like Semyon Bychkov and Sir Charles Mackerras, Antonio Pappano is an eloquent translator of potentially difficult scores: a musician who can bring clarity to cluttered writing without losing a scintilla of sensuality. But where Gounod's melodies stay with you long after the sugar-rush of McVicar's tirelessly energetic production, something has failed to connect on stage. Opera-lovers of the old school may disagree but, in my opinion, when you leave a great production, musical excellence should not be foremost in your mind.

Perhaps pragmatically, McVicar has stretched each member of the cast to exactly the limit of comfort and no further. For Terfel, Méphistophéles is ideal: a magnetic, succulent, vicious role that sees him switch from seducer to sadist in a heartbeat. Both Keenlyside and Koch make easy work of their sketchily characterised parts, singing their arias most movingly. But for all the crazed laughter and showy acrobatics in McVicar's painstaking direction of Gheorghiu and Alagna, it is impossible to forget who they are or to accept them as a man seduced by evil and a woman mad with pain. In the heat of the moment, I was as tickled as anyone by Alagna's Mrs Overall impression as Old Faust and subsequent cartwheel as Young Faust - a transformation as vulgar as Rolando Villazón's was subtle in Les Contes d'Hoffmann - but he and his wife are limited actors whose dramatic deficiencies cannot be covered up by any amount of McVicar clichés.

It's possible, of course, that McVicar is pulling a double bluff with this production: indicating the vacuity of a godless world by showing how empty a life of careless pleasure can be. But I doubt it. Currently - and one always has to allow for second and even third thoughts with McVicar's productions - I feel dazzled by Faustbut dazzled in somehow the wrong way. It doesn't matter how much blood pours out of Christ's side to slake the thirst of Méphistophéles's vampiric companions, how thrillingly long are the legs of the cigarette girls and how improbable is the spectacle of Alagna shooting heroin. It doesn't matter how horribly the pregnant Giselle is treated in Michael Keegan-Dolan's extraordinaryWalpurgisnacht ballet, how glamorous are Charles Edwards's set designs and Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes. It doesn't matter how brilliantly animated are the chorus or how delightfully grotesque Bryn Terfel is in drag. This Faust is no more provocative than several recent television adverts and, I suspect, no more meaningful. The sheer care that has been taken with its execution is truly stunning. But it lacks the sincerity and seriousness of McVicar's Butterfly or Lucretia and, as such, suggests that this visceral, intelligent, passionate director may be in danger of becoming the Elijah Moshinsky de nos jours.

Call me picky but when I leave an opera I don't want to be marvelling at the coffee-table art-book references, the coloratura, the narcotica, the erotica or the cartwheels. I don't want to be aware of a historic cast and have to make the allowances one has learned to make for this or that artist. I simply want to be caught by the narrative in such a way that part of me stays with it. I want to care what happens next. I want to feel the terror of a believer confronted by unthinkable sacrilege. I want it to matter. And I want my heart to be a little bit broken by the experience. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

The Jack Vettriano setting of Grange Park Opera - all exotic tents, eccentric evening wear, fairy lights, chauffeurs and cut-glass accents - is an improbable place to find dirt and daring but it was there that I found what was missing in Faust: a production that made a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. And this from a minor Tchaikovsky opera? Yes. Of course it helps if you have Janis Kelly as your female lead and David Fielding as your director and designer, for The Enchantress is a relatively forgettable story of social, economical and romantic strife, notable only for Tchaikovsky's sensitive characterisation of two women - brothel-keeper Nastasia (Kelly) and bourgeois wannabe Evpraksia (Carole Wilson) - and his subtle orchestration of their emotional and physical landscapes.

Aside from Tchaikovsky's annoying habit of suddenly stepping back from the narrative and needlessly summarising events so far, the major handicap to a credible production of The Enchantress is Nastasia's denouncement as a witch. Nonetheless, Fielding has updated the opera to the last decade, thus allowing a set with enough pneumatic Eastern Bloc wallpaper to rival that in Richard Jones's production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and more platform-heeled hookers than a small town in the Urals could logically support. (Suffice to say that the Russian tourist board will not appreciate this production.) It's very ugly, very attractive, and, after a season full of productions with a similar dynamic, oddly familiar. But the acting of the chorus and minor roles - most especially Andrew Friedhoff as the tragic, vomit-stained Paiisi - is superbly nuanced, Kelly's portrayal of Nastasia's tough exterior and soft heart is as persuasive and unhackneyed as her Violetta, while Wilson is phenomenal as the rejected spouse of Nikita (Vassily Savenko) and borderline-incestuous mother of Yuri (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts). A small slice of Opera North grit in pretty-pretty Hampshire.

Another day, another motorway, another minor Tchaikovsky opera. Garsington Opera's wild card this season is Cherevichki: hailed as a showcase for winsome Anne-Sophie Duprels (Oksana) but delightfully dominated by the fabulous Frances McCafferty (Solokha) and the gleeful Roderick Earle (The Devil). Absurdly thin of plot and mystifying to anyone other than an academic with a PhD in Humour, Romance and Superstition in Russian Folklore, this daft tale about a spoilt little madam who demands fancy footwear in exchange for her hand is, like The Enchantress, a stop-start affair. So much so that a conductor as good as Elgar Howarth and an orchestra as superior as Garsington's are hard-pushed to maintain any momentum. After considerable cuts, Acts I and II still last as long as Rhinegold, which wouldn't matter so much if they were remotely as interesting but they're not, and neither are Acts III and IV. What they are, however, is occasionally charming with just a touch of alarming brutality: a combination reflected in Olivia Fuchs's smart direction and Niki Turner's inventive, economical designs. But why choose a dance-heavy opera with a central snowball fight for a dancer-light summer season?

Would that Fuchs and Turner had been engaged for Cosi fan Tutte instead. Nothing to frighten the horses here. Or the race horses. Or the racehorse-owning audience. But each shift in the emotions of Da Ponte's protagonists is subtly echoed and amplified through director John Cox's clever use of extras. The bright young things - especially Wendy Dawn Thompson as Dorabella - are bright and young, the orchestral playing is clean and crisp, and Lillian Watson is a typically charming Despina.

Best in show? Jonathan Best's Don Alfonso: inviting, aloof, disturbing and all in the eyes. A performance more mesmerising than Despina's magnetic cure and perfectly judged for Garsington's intimate auditorium.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Faust': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 2 July; 'The Enchantress': Grange Park Opera, Hampshire (01962 868600), to 6 July; 'Cherevichki'/ 'Cosi fan Tutte': Garsington Opera, Oxfordshire (01865 361636), to 9/10 July

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