Faust stands at number 33 on Operabase’s list of the top 50 operas performed world wide. It is difficult to understand why so low.
Even with the limited resources available to a touring company like the excellent Swansea Opera, the music, the narrative and the action make a powerful impact.
Director and designer Brendan Wheatley’s Expressionist stage set was an anonymous 19th century location that was reflected in the costumes (Gabriella Ingram). The set was flexible enough to offer variations in elevation for the singers.
The English libretto was by Ruth and Thomas Martin, further adapted by the company. Normally, I prefers opera sung in the original language, but words and music seemed well matched.
The overture, with Faust slumped over his desk, was highly atmospheric. A single light burned above his head and the corrugations of the backdrop suggested the spines of his scholarly books. This was our introduction to Ben Kerslake as the eponymous hero. He was strongest singing in trio or duet, but he carried off key arias well.
Mark Saberton’s first appearance, as Mephistopheles, conjured up associations with voodoo as he sported a top hat, Astrakhan coat and kohl eyes. Suitably demonic and malevolent, his was the finest display of acting and he carried off all his arias in bravura fashion.
Rebecca Goulden as Marguerite seemed to have difficulty playing the ingénue and was initially unconvincing. However, the Marguerite of the second half was a different story. Powerful and tragic as the Fallen Woman gone mad, her redemption in the finale trio, with that beautiful soprano line (Purest Angels, Radiant Angels), set me blubbing.
Members of the Cadenza Choir supported the professionals in giving a rousing account of the Soldiers’ Chorus (Immortal Glory) and Hakan Vramsmo as Valentin received louder applause than some of the leads.
Unfashionable it may be, but a packed house at Bridlington Spa cared little for trendiness and gave Swansea Opera’s Faust the ovation it deserved.
Review by Mike Tilling