THE Devil, as the Salvation Army founder General William Booth observed, has all the best tunes. In Gounod’s Faust, he certainly does, making the villainous Mephistopheles the undoubted star of the piece, and requiring a larger than life performance from a great singer to carry it off convincingly.
Satan-Mephistopheles, summoned to earth by the suicidal despair of the scientist Faust, promises him earthly wealth, power and the love (and body) of a beautiful young woman. Faust drinks a potion and is transformed into a handsome young man. With bottomless caskets of jewels and the honeyed words of the devil, he seduces the pure and virtuous Marguerite. It all ends very badly.
The dark and dramatic opera, inspired by a German legend and loosely based on Goethe’s Faust, was the second of this year’s Dorset Opera Festival productions. It had an all-star cast, and was directed with great skill and clarity by Christopher Cowell and expert conducting from Jeremy Carnell, the whole adding up to what is probably the company’s finest production yet.
Gen Booth actually asked WHY the devil should have the best tunes – and Gounod gives his audience the answer. His devil – like Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost – is an irresistible seducer, a charismatic charlatan who promises the earth and all that it is in it. All his willing victim has to do is promise his soul after death.
Gounod’s devil is Mephistopheles, performed with seductive charm and terrifying power by Dorset Opera favourite Mark S Doss, a handsome bass-baritone with a voice that can soothe like warm treacle or shake you to the core, plumbing depths as dark and frightening as the deepest pits of hell. This was a performance which commanded the stage – vocally and physically.
His evil magic is too much for dashing young Spanish tenor Alejandro del Cerro’s Faust, who willingly sells his soul when shown a vision of the beautiful Marguerite (Anna Patalong – even more moving than as last year’s Tatyana in Eugene Onegin).
Good and evil battle on stage and in Gounod’s passionate music, ably performed not only by the first class soloists but also by the Dorset Opera chorus, and never better than in the Act 3 soldiers’ chorus.
Under the leadership of artistic director Roderick Kennedy, Dorset Opera has moved into the major league of the summer opera festivals – this was a production to stand comparison with the best that Garsington or Grange Park can offer.
Pictured: Mark S Doss as Mephistopheles turns on the charm with the widow Marthe Schwertle (Sarah Pring) watched by Faust (Alejandro del Cerro); Simone Ricksman as Siebel with the dead Marguerite (Anna Patalong); Nicholas Lester as Valentin. Photographs by Fritz Curzon.