Gounod’s Faust at La Fenice, Venice – Ivan Ayon Rivas, Alex Esposito, Carmela Remigio; directed by Joan Anton Rechi; conducted by Frédéric Chaslin

Faust – Opera in five Acts to a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré after Goethe’s play Faust, Part One [sung in French with Italian and English surtitles]

Doctor Faust – Ivan Ayon Rivas
Méphistophélès – Alex Esposito
Valentin – Armando Noguera
Marguerite – Carmela Remigio
Wagner – William Corrò
Siébel – Paola Gardina
Marthe Schwertlein – Julie Mellor

Chorus & Orchestra of La Fenice
Frédéric Chaslin

Joan Anton Rechi – Director
Sebastian Ellric – Set Designer
Gabriela Salaverri – Costume Designer
Alberto Rodriguez Vega – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 28 April, 2022
Venue: Teatro La Fenice, Venice

Seeing that Jules Barbier and Michel Carré’s adaptation of Faust, as the libretto for the opera set by Gounod, largely jettisons the metaphysics and philosophising of Goethe’s play, it is apt that Joan Anton Rechi’s production does so too, focusing on the personal dimension of Faust’s relationship with Marguerite and her death as the victim of the former’s pact with Méphistophélès. Rather than any communing with the supernatural, the inspiration for that ultimately illusory and destructive pact by Faust is a scene in Federico Fellini’s film Intervista where two actors look back on a scene they had played in La Dolce Vita and seek to reclaim their youth. The narrative of the opera unfolds, then, as a film directed by Méphistophélès, offering that chance to the elderly Faust to go back and live life afresh (the set for the re-enactment of his younger days is then dominated by a release poster for another Fellini film, Giuletta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits). 

Méphistophélès is not depicted as Fellini as such, but the seductive power wielded by a film director over actors – and by extension, an audience – to enable them to create an imagined world is clear enough as Faust and Marguerite play out their doomed relationship under the unforgiving scrutiny of the cameras and the public. The overtly evil and exploitative power which a director can exert – as demonstrated by the career of Harvey Weinstein, for instance – also seems to be alluded to in Méphistophélès’s assault or rape of Marguerite, as well as in what appears to be Marthe’s pleasuring him (voluntarily) as she kneels before him with his back turned to the audience, making a sardonic counterpoint to Faust and Marguerite’s more decent expressions of romantic fervour at that point. 

Despite the generally abstract and fairly minimalist set, the production evokes something of the sensational and lurid world of a Fellini film with semi-naked, circus women periodically swirling around the set as though about to perform a striptease (presumably in reference to La Dolce Vita) and a huge pair of red lips in Pop Art style as the sofa on which Faust and Marguerite make love – all seemingly making their own comment upon the artificiality and shallowness of the narrative those principal characters are enacting. But Rechi’s filmic reinterpretation also neatly weaves in the aura of the Italian neorealist movement of the late 1940s and 50s – in which Fellini came to prominence, and then developed away from in his more iconic films referenced in this production – grittily exploring the reality of social deprivation in that country after World War Two. That draws a good parallel between the backdrop of war and the appearance of soldiers in Gounod’s original, and the presence of combatants around the bedazzling world of the cinema in this production, first as the documenter of that reality and then offering a more fantastical vision to consumers as life returned to normal.

Overall the production rescues what otherwise comes across as the opera’s sentimental distortion of Goethe’s original. Frédéric Chaslin’s conducting underscores that, being purposeful, creating an often dark and complicated, rather than a merely mawkish, soundtrack. The brooding sequences of the Prelude could have been Wagner, for instance, whilst the passionate ardour of the music for Faust and Marguerite serves to deepen the tragedy of the latter’s death. That zeal is present in Ivan Ayon Rivas’s presentation as Faust, often urgent, even desperate, and Carmela Remigio is an impressively versatile Marguerite, alluring and playful one moment, expressing tenderness and vulnerability at another. 

Alex Esposito skilfully navigates various personas during the course of the performance – at one point in drag – but all the while maintains a compelling, seductive charm and steadiness as he leads Faust through the snare of his fantasies. Julie Mellor brings a knowing edge to the part of Marguerite’s guardian, Marthe, as though entirely unphased by how her ward becomes caught up with Faust. By comparison, Armando Noguera’s Valentin demonstrates more paranoid anxiety in leaving his sister to the care of Paola Gardina’s amiable Siébel whilst he goes away to war.

Overall these are captivating performances which, in their conviction, bring the production that much closer to the bone as it sidesteps the somewhat abstract myth of the original but targets the universal folly of seeking with impunity something outside the reach of possibility. 

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