Less than the sum of its parts

Ken Russell’s 1985 production of Gounod’s Faust at the Wiener Staatsoper makes an uneven and somewhat unsatisfying DVD.  The music making is fine, sometimes very fine, and the production has some very interesting and effective scenes but the overall concept doesn’t quite work.  Add to that quirky video direction and a picture quality that’s not good even by 1985 standards and the package as a whole just doesn’t quite make it.  It’s a shame as this is more interesting than most opera productions of the period. 

The production is set in the early 19th century.  There are a number of departures from and additions to the libretto.  The most obvious is that Marguerite is a nun and a rather plain one at that though by Act 3 she has been defrocked or whatever happens to errant nuns.  I think the idea is that something extra is needed to justify/necessitate diabolic intervention to facilitate a seduction but it seems rather forced and artificial because Marguerite simply isn’t nun like in her words or actions.  What does work very well is Russell’s use of female dancers to comment on the action.  It’s very effective, especially in the casket scene where a bejewelled dancer emerges from the box to tantalise Marguerite.  There are a number of other cleverly staged scenes and while one or two come off as a bit 1970s Hammer Horror for the most part they work.  Regrettably the Walpurgisnacht scene is omitted.

Musically it’s pretty solidly good news.  Francisco Araiza is a really strong Faust.  He sings well, he acts well and is French is impeccable.  It’s much the best performance I’ve seen from him.  Ruggero Raimondi is a commanding and swaggering presence as Méphistophélès though his French is a bit approximate.  Gabriela Beňačková, as Marguerite, takes a while to get going but she’s in great form by the last act where she is truly affecting.  I think the slow start may have more to do with the production not really focussing on her as a character until the end than on any acts of omission or commission on her part.  The supporting roles are all more than adequately performed.  Erich Binder conducts and makes the most of the big dramatic moments and the famous tunes.  Really it’s very good all around and it’s supported by clear and well balanced DTS 5.0 sound (using one of those synthetic DGG processes).  Dolby 5.0 and PCM stereo are also available.

The biggest problem with this disk is Russell’s direction for video.  It’s really self indulgent with heavy reliance on kaleidoscope effects and superpositions.  Even when we do get the unadulterated stage picture Russell tends to focus in on something or someone while other characters or, more often, his dancers flit in and out of shot.  It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine but if a director is going to include quite complex choreography we, the viewers, should get a decent look at it.  None of this is helped by a picture that shows all too clearly that it was shot for 1980s TV.  When we do see the whole stage there’s so little detail in the picture it’s painful.  I have the very strong impression that what the theatre audience saw was way more interesting than the video suggests.  Certainly their extremely vociferous applause and general hollering suggests so.  The disk has English, French, German, Spanish, talian and Chinese subtitles and a few trailers. The documentationis a track listing, synopsis (generic, not of this production) and a short essay.

There’s enough of Ken Russell in this to make it worth a look but it could so easily have been a whole lot better.

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