Venue: Harrogate Theatre
The first act is well executed; the premise of the opera is quickly apparent. There is an ironic tension between the major harmony of the music and the tragedy of Faust considering suicide and then selling his soul. Alberto Sousa (Faust, tenor) expresses grief without too much conflict with the music. The single set, corrugated steel warehouse chic, is fun without distracting us much from what is going on. Swansea City Opera’s decision to perform in English makes it even more accessible; the chamber orchestra makes it less daunting. It is difficult not to sense that this is a simple production with melodrama and gentle humour from the outset.
Mark Saberton (Mephistopheles) dominates the stage, as he should. He has a camp bravado that the other cast members gravitate towards and his charisma seems to carry the plot through to the conclusion. His face is painted white with Taylor Momsen panda eyes; he looks like death without being terrifying. We warm to him quickly and by ‘The Song of the Golden Calf’ we are all routing for him. Saberton’s more consistent vocals seem to ironically parallel the power balance between him and Sousa; Sousa stumbles on a couple high notes and is lost under the orchestra from time to time. The imbalance between the two characters is also emphasised through hints of homoeroticism, including a ballroom dance with a cheeky (you could say devilish) grope from Saberton. I wasn’t sure if I appreciated this alliance between homosexuality and evil throughout; in fact, much of the drama seemed to be grounded in dated ideas of good and evil.
The troubled emphasis on conflict between good and evil seemed to come out again in the presentation of Marguerite (Angharad Morgan). It is an issue with the opera itself as much as the performance; the trope of the ‘fallen’ woman prevailed on the Victorian stage. Yet the production did nothing to try to compensate for this flaw; whilst Morgan’s singing was phenomenal, especially in the final act, her costumes were not. The huge, white dress she ends the opera really played up the idea that she is a character who is striving to regain her ‘purity’ through repentance and dismissal of Faust. As visually rewarding as the red necklace that contrasted her plain brown dress during ‘The Jewel Song’, the use of colour corresponded to an antiquated iconography.
I did like what Alexandra Cassidy did with Siebel, the opera’s breeches role. Her voice might have expressed her gender but in her body language/acting she really performed male. She made the role humorous and deprecating, really mastering the hapless male lover in a way that reminded me of every RSC comedy I’ve ever sat through.
It wasn’t in any way a perfect production and I think the morality of the opera dated the production considerably but for an introduction to opera or an easy piece of theatre it wasn’t bad at all. The simplicity made it easier to focus on the music itself.