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Deutsche Oper Berlin

Gounod’s Faust has been performed virtually continuously since its 1859 premiere. A smash success throughout Europe and America, it also earned the composer the wrath of the Germans, who saw Gounod’s tinkering with Goethe’s play as something of a desecration of their cultural treasure. For this reason, the opera has long gone here by the title Margarethe to show the French adaptation’s distance from Goethe’s play. This might help explain why Philip Stölzl, the director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s new Faust, chose to tell the story from the heroine’s point of view (seen June 19). 

Stölzl, a frequent guest here and down the road at the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, serves up insistently narrative productions with highly flamboyant Regietheater flair. His Trovatore last season at the Staatsoper was set in a commedia dell’arte madhouse of powered faces, wigs and generally spastic behavior; his storybook Parsifal here in 2013 was a more subdued affair, plodding and soporific despite the pretty visuals. Did his vision for Faust reach the same dizzying heights as his bold Nazi-era Rienzi, his first work for the DOB in 2010? Sadly, it did not. 

The production opened with the condemned Marguerite awaiting her execution on death row and ended with the sentence being carried out by lethal injection. In between, the recollections of her seduction and abandonment seemed filtered through a hazy funhouse mirror. At least, that’s what I made of all the carnival elements in the production, including balloons, bumper cars and gingerbread hearts. The set itself suggested a merry-go-round. The action played out on a frequently rotating stage that was dominated by something resembling a water tower. The porcelain doll masks worn by the chorus and the sickly lighting certainly created an atmosphere of uneasiness, although the contrast with Faust and Mephisto’s glittering pink suits was jarring. Likewise, the elaborate prison scene, with its effective choreography, seemed to belong to an entirely different production. The predominant onstage elements were stasis and recurrence — as indicated by the impressive and creepy frozen tableaus of playing schoolchildren — to reflect the production’s interior conceit.              

To further indicate that Stölzl treated the main action as a flashback, Marguerite was often doubled by a silent actress, which suggested that the character was reflecting on the plot from a remove. The device might have worked better had it been employed consistently. As it was, the pantomime Marguerite’s appearances were often unpredictable. 

Quite a bit of the libretto — especially early on — excludes Marguerite altogether. Stölzl devised a clever solution for the Walpurgisnacht scene, which here became a fantasy of Marguerite and Faust’s wedding. Aside from this, however, he didn’t try to insert her in scenes where she didn’t belong, which was probably for the best, but nonetheless weakened his production concept. 

And as had been the case with Parsifal and Trovatore,the enviable cast that the house had assembled for the premiere was mostly left to fend for itself. Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai brought a rounded tone and ardor-filled phrasings to the title role. His “Salut! demeure chaste et pure,” was marked by restraint and judicious legato up a rousing high C, which was followed by an controlled decrescendo. He stayed in good voice all evening long, and would certainly have made a larger impression had the production known quite what to do with him. 

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, one of today’s leading Don Giovannis, was mostly convincing as Méphistophélès. A singer with ample vocal heft and charisma to spare, he threw himself into the role with a devilish abandon that was hard not to admire. His bass was consistently full and burnished, although he did have his share of indistinct tones, as in the opening of “Vous que faites l’endormie.”   

The most impressive performance belonged to Krassimira Stoyanova, the evening’s Marguerite. The Bulgarian soprano, who triumphed recently as the Marschallin in Salzburg, brought her richly textured instrument with its complex colors to this celebrated role. And like her recent turn in Salzburg, she enhanced her portrayal through astute psychological insight, conveyed by a nuanced and assured vocal and dramatic performance. Sadly, she failed to reach the high B in “Elles se cachaient … Il ne revient pas,“ which was the only disappointment in an otherwise overwhelming portrayal.  

In the smaller roles, Stephanie Lauricella was agile but a little hesitant as Siébel, while Ronnita Miller was winningly lusty as Marthe. And it was great to see the astounding house baritone Markus Brück, who has recently been having health problems, back in full force as Valentin. The company’s robust chorus was altogether less impressive than usual (I’m tempted to blame the production), although they managed to unite powerfully at the end for a sublime rendition of the heavenly chorus.  The DOB orchestra, under the dramatically attuned baton of Marco Armiliato, played with propulsive and well-disciplined verve throughout the evening.

  This Faust was the final production of a DOB’s 2014-15 season, which kicked off belatedly in November due to much-needed repairs at the house. Although the truncated season had some revelatory musical moments (in particular a devastating Lady Macbeth of Mstensk and the strong revivals of Lohengrin and Tosca, both starring Anja Harteros), much of the programming seemed improvisatory and uninspired. By all indications, the company should be back in full force next season, which inaugurates its ambitious line-up in October with L’Africaine, the first installment in a multi-year exploration of Giacomo Meyerbeer, one of Berlin’s most famous and neglected native sons.  —A. J. Goldmann  


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