The Royal Opera House continued its winning streak this Autumn with a superb revival of Faust. In David McVicar’s kitsch production, the action of the drama is relocated to Gounod’s Paris and the opera’s tension between earthly libido and religious sentimentality is figured in the composer’s own psyche. This setting allows McVicar to indulge in his usual stylistic trademarks - a parade of cabaret girls, cross-dressing and sexual transgression, above all in the Walpurgisnacht - as well as an array of gaudy sets. A couple of these touches (such as Faust injecting heroin) felt needlessly gratuitous, but rather this than the stultifying blandness of his recent Anna Bolena.
For this revival, Covent Garden assembled a cast in a million, which was also being broadcast live via cinema transmission. As Faust, Vittorio Grigolo was the image of impetuous youth, singing out with puppyish enthusiasm. Dramatically, his interpretation had a level of nuance far-removed from last year’s Manon, and he received a curtain call that matched his expectations. At times, one wonders whether he might be making his own Faustian pact; his desire to inject maximum vibrancy and squillo into the centre of his voice makes for some climactic top notes which sound perilously close to cracking. Still, with three roles at Covent Garden this season, he’s making the most of his opportunities.
Alongside him, Angela Gheorghiu reprised one of her finest roles as Marguerite. Although she got off to a slightly shaky start with the 'Jewel Song', she was absolutely in her element in the later acts and delivered a final trio that was heaven-sent. Innocence perhaps isn’t her thing; her characteristic knowingness meant that she sounded less like a naïve village girl than Bianca Castafiore shopping at Cartier, and judging from her recent performances, her voice is also in a process of transition. While her lower registers maintain their characteristic dusky warmth, a touch of hardness and dryness has begun to creep in at the top, suggesting that it might be an opportune moment to begin exploring further repertoire such as Desdemona. These hesitations aside, it was a performance to cherish - and no one dies onstage like Gheorghiu.
The other two male roles were delivered to perfection. In the role of Valentin, Dimitri Hvorostovsky once again displayed his immaculate legato and endless supply of breath. In other roles his pathological avoidance of tonal harshness or extreme dramatic effects can slip into blandness, but as the priggish soldier they tied into his interpretation magnificently. ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ brought the house down, and his death scene had a tragic dimension comparable to Rodrigo. As the devil, Rene Pape brought chocolatey richness and an air of menace (as well as a dandy-ish streak of humour in the later scenes). He doesn’t appear in London often enough.
Under Evelino Pido’s swift, stylish baton, the longeurs in Gounod’s score passed by without trouble, and the smaller roles, especially Michele Losier’s Siebel were nicely taken. Some of the cuts in McVicar’s production damage the opera’s narrative coherence, but at 3 hours without interval the opera stayed its welcome.
After this musical high, we were brought swiftly back down to earth by the latest revival of Richard Eyre’s La Traviata. The first set of performances in a 22-night run, this was presumably Covent Garden’s way to cope with funding cuts, and given the show’s popularity and versatility, this is a logical step. Unfortunately, even a popular revival needs more care in its preparation than this performance displayed. Part of the fault lay in the pit: an experienced conductor on the continent, Jan Latham Koenig’s direction was disappointingly four-square, and the only flicker of rubato was a periodic lack of coordination between pit and stage.
A more consistent cast might have compensated for these problems, but the big name team Covent Garden assembled had difficulties of their own. As Violetta, Marina Poplavskaya gave one of the most thoughtfully conceived Traviatas I’ve heard. After the flirtatious opening numbers, she delivered her Act 1 cabaletta like a mad scene, her body visibly wracked by illness and hurling out coloratura in a battle against death. From then on she delivered a stinging Act 2 confrontation with Germont, and an appropriately fragile final scene. Yet once again, her vocal problems continue to let her down. The first of these, most obviously, is her intonation, which is frequently poor, and thus sullies the purity of Verdi’s cantabile lines. Although she managed the more agile passage work with impressive facility, her upper register continues to be problematic, and whilst at full-pelt her voice takes on an exciting dramatic edge, softer passages have a vinegary, curdled quality, at odds with Violetta’s sweetness. At times, her floated high notes had me thinking of Joan Sutherland - alas, circa 1990.
James Valenti returned to the role of Alfredo for the second time in this production. He offered a significant improvement on his previous appearances, and delivered reliably warm tones and stylish phrasing. What he still fails to supply is character: he simply doesn’t sound like a young man in the grips of passion and it was only in the Act 2 gambling scene he really let go and revealed his full potential as a dramatic performer. As his father, Leo Nucci gave a predictably stylish and credible account, although at 69 the years have left their mark. What none of the three principals could really achieve was a believable sense that they were individuals with longstanding and inter-connected histories, meaning that the drama sadly failed to ring true.
Richard Eyre’s production continues to wear well, although some of the touches he introduced in 2009 - opening of doors and clinking of ice in Violetta’s Act 1 solo - disturb the musical flow. With two further casts to go, and a couple of performances from Anna Netrebko to boot, let’s hope that the later performances hit greater musical heights than this lacklustre revival.