Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Méphistophélès in Opera Australia's production of Faust at the Sydney Opera House - photo by Prudence UptonTeddy Tahu Rhodes resplendent in tattoos, tiara and black evening gown is not the only unsettling sight in David McVicar’s masterful staging of Faust. Church statues come to life, a life-sized crucifix crashes to the ground, a delicate classical ballet descends into an orgy, as Goethe’s melodramatic story of the aged Faust who trades his soul to the devil in return for  a promise of a re-run of a life of hedonism, is portrayed by Gounod in a lush stream of beautiful melodies.

Honouring its reputation as one of the grandest of grand operas, McVicar’s staging is lavish and inventive. Charles Edwards’s opulent designs transform the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre with a succession of eye-popping recreations of iconic 1870’s Parisian landmarks.

A crowded town square, the decadent Cabaret L’Enfer, the Church of Saint Severin, the organ loft of Notre-Dame, the stage of the Palais Garnier, all emerge from the shadows of Paule Constable’s deeply atmospheric lighting design, populated by a huge cast portraying citizens, ranging from wounded soldiers returning from battle to debauched bourgeoisie flaunting their wealth at theatrical spectacles, in stunning costumes designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel.

Conducting his first opera in Australia, flamboyant Italian conductor, Lorenzo Passerini, maintained impressive control of his resources from the very first ominous chord of the overture. While allowing his soloists space to nuance their interpretations, he achieved thrilling dynamics and balance from orchestra and ensemble for the huge choruses, particularly at the end of the opera where the chorus was positioned in the theatre, in the third level balconies, high above the audience.

It would be easy for the lead singers to become overwhelmed by the spectacle of this production, but again Opera Australia has assembled a topline cast, headed by Russian soprano, Irina Lungu, as Marguerite, Italian tenor, Ivan Magri, making his role debut as Faust, and of course, the stentorian-voiced Teddy Tahu Rhodes oozing devilish charm, charisma and swagger as Mephistopheles.

All acquit themselves magnificently, as does Michael Honeyman, as Marguerite’s soldier brother, Valentin, who cannot bring himself to forgive her for bringing disgrace on their family, even as he lies dying by the sword of her lover, Faust.

Ever-reliable, Dominica Matthews, makes the most of her chances as the saucy Marthe, but it is Anna Dowsley who takes the acting honours with her eye-catching turn in the pants role as the lanky Seibel, who has a secret crush on Marguerite.

Of particular interest with this excellent revival is the opportunity it offers to have another look at the choreography of Michael Keegan-Dolan, who was responsible for the choreography for this production, meticulously reproduced here by Shane Placentino, who was also responsible for reproducing McVicar’s direction.

Since its 2015 season, Australia has had the opportunity to see Keegan-Dolin’s extraordinary dance work Swan Lake/Loch na hEala. His striking choreography for Faust both the Cabaret L’Enfer can-can and the Walpurgis Night ballet which ends, horrifically, with the ballet girls being raped, was superbly danced by the large dance team, whose names, are not recorded in the free programs. Nor are those of the Opera Australia orchestra and chorus.

While the free programs, which were introduced following the decision by Opera Australia not to continue to produce souvenir programs, are welcomed, surely the omission of these names is demeaning, not only to the artists, for whom the printed program is the only record of their participation in a production, but to the many in the audience who would like to know the names of the artists whose performances they are watching and listening to.

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Friday 14 February 2020
Season continues to 11 March 2020
Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com

For more information, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.

Image: Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Méphistophélès in Opera Australia’s production of Faust at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Prudence Upton

Review: Bill Stephens OAM