My Opera Blog is part of a Criticism Now project from the Cultural Institute of Kings College London. I’m watching three different Faust operas rehearse at Covent Garden in a new enterprise at the Royal Opera House: A Faustian Pack. The operas will be put on simultaneously at the Royal Opera House in April. Gounod’s Faust, a 19th-century French opera in the grandest style, will play in the Main House while two newly commissioned operas on Faustian themes in contemporary British settings will play in the Linbury Theatre: The Crackle by Matthew Herbert and Through His Teeth by Luke Bedford with libretto by David Harrower.
“Calling for Faust,” says the tannoy at the stage door. I’m still amazed to be sitting on the artists’ side of the Artists’ Entrance at Covent Garden. There are people sitting, standing, chatting and checking their mobiles around the water machine. “Rehearsal Room 1. You have 15 minutes.”
Several people rise and leave. Rehearsals are beginning for the revival of Gounod’s Faust with a furiously high-profile international cast. Among these people must be Joseph Calleja, the tenor who will sing Faust, Sonya Yoncheva his innocent Marguerite, Simon Keenlyside singing Marguerite’s brother Valentin, and the great Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel: Méphistophélès.
“Calling for Die Frau Ohne Schatten!”
Another lot rise. So much is going on in the Royal Opera House all the time. It’s like a city. Opera is all about collaboration and Covent Garden gets the best.
The best of goodwill, too. Sian Edwards, conductor of Luke Bedford’s Faust piece Through His Teeth, told me that one of the wonderful things about working here is that everyone, electricians, singers, technicians, conductors, stage hands and international stars, respects everyone else’s expertise.
Rehearsal Room 1 looks more like a cathedral, or a techni-colour 3D Piranesi, than a room. It’s wide as a tennis court and tall enough to accommodate high scenery which will carry on the illusion and soar upwards even seen from the front row of the stalls.
On one side is an enormous slice of opera box: a gilt and silver loggia with bare-breasted caryatid and red velvet elbow-rest. On the other is a colonnade of black marble church, with steps up to an organ loft. A crucifix with life-size Christ is off to the side and behind is a run-down apartment front painted the nothing grey of a 19th century Parisian apartment bloc with a black down drainpipe.
All lit by three beautiful tall arched windows and a series of high strip lights. The black floor is painted to look like tiles.
Simon the stage manager greets me and I dump my coat at the foot of a large plaster tomb topped with an angel. Maybe for Marguerite’s soul right at the end.
As with the chamber operas rehearsing in Southwark, there are tables facing the stage, desks for conductor, director, and stage managers. Only there are more of them and the repetiteur has a grand piano not an upright.
A stage hand is tearing off a square of carpet on the stage front.
“This opera is a revival, you see. In 2011, when we used this set before, there was a vent above it which dripped, so they tacked this extra carpet down. It’s been sitting in Wales for three years, where we store the scenery. And now we don’t need it.” He starts prising up tacks.
Bruno Ravella, director of this revival, is talking to Bryn Terfel who is wearing a grand caped greatcoat (to get used to it, I guess) and with it a Bob Marley T-shirt and white-flashed trainers with luminous laces.
Bruno stands close to him, murmuring him through a series of moves as the piano plays. Bryn Terfel is sitting on a large chest by the opera loggia. He stands up, shadowed by Bruno in a plaid shirt and walks across to the other side of the stage, the church side. Now he is climbing the steps to the organ loft, looking upwards – and also looking increasingly hesitant. .
“How far do I dare go?” he asks and stops halfway. He comes down and raises his arms. A group of actors dressed in black creep towards him, holding up black wings, run to him, accompany him to the back of the stage.
Is he Faust raising Mephistopheles? I don’t get this. Dramatizations of Faust usually start off with him alone in his study. I don’t know the opera but this music sounds like an overture and Bryn Terfel is a bass baritone, one of the greatest in the world. He can’t be Faust: Faust is a tenor.
Later, Bruno explains they have set the opera in 1870s Paris with all its bourgeois fascination with guilt, innocence, decadence and corruption.
“Usually they raise the curtain after the overture, look.” He shows me where it says CURTAIN UP in the score.
His score is fascinating. Instead of music spread over two pages, the music is only on the left and on the right, each page, is a scrupulous drawing of the stage, the angles and diagonals, props – and singers. Every page plotted simultaneous with its music. He can see at a glance. Of course he has to have that, I’ve just never seen or thought of it before.
“We’re doing it differently. We’re raising the curtain right at the beginning. The overture plays while we see Mephistophe in Faust’s study planning his campaign.”
Something else I’ve never thought of before. Mephistophe is Faust – his shadow ego, his dark self, like the good and bad swan, white and black, in Swan Lake.
“Faust is Gounod, really,” says Bruno. “He was a man of the church for a while. He was torn between the church and the gorgeous temptations of music and art. That’s why we have the church on one side and an opera box on the other. And why Mephistophe doesn’t dare go all the way up. He’s taking on God.
“The opera is Mephistophe. At the end he is battling God not for Faust’s soul, he’s a pushover, but for the innocent soul, the greatest prize of all – Marguerite.”