October 30, 2015, 11:26 am
His Majesty’s Theatre
REVIEW ROSALIND APPLEBY
It’s a long flight to London’s Royal Opera House but save your dollars and instead visit His Majesty’s Theatre this month to see David McVicar’s famous production of Faust.
The 2004 production of Gounod’s opera is presented by WA Opera and Opera Conference with an outstanding cast and creative team. In fact, having seen the show in London, I’d suggest McVicar’s extravagant production packs more punch here where every detail is visible as it almost overflows the stage of our intimate theatre.
McVicar’s irreverent but chilling take on a man’s bargain with the devil is set in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1870, laden with Gothic trappings. In the opening scene Mephistopheles arrives through a trapdoor, coughing as he waves away the sulphurous fumes. Scenes of hedonistic revelry unfold as Faust, an elderly bourgeois gentleman, exchanges his soul for promises of youth and love.
McVicar takes us to Paris’ famous Cabaret L’Enfer with can-can dancing girls and to Saint-Severin Church where Faust plays the organ and candles are scattered everywhere a la Phantom of the Opera.
The production (revived by director Bruno Ravella) is dripping with eye candy from the decadent costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and splendid lighting by Paule Constable to Charles Edwards’ ingenious set design which frames each scene within theatre stalls from which we watch Mephistopheles direct events.
And it is Mephistopheles’ show. On opening night Teddy Tahu Rhodes gave the best performance I’ve seen from him, insolent and imposing whether dressed in drag or a dinner suit. His bass baritone alternated between seductive caress and terrifying stentorian authority as he doomed the love of Faust and Marguerite.
Natalie Aroyan captured Marguerite’s purity with delightful bubbliness, reaching creamy top notes with ease in the Jewel Song. In a production high on visual effects her endlessly beautiful soprano and Rhodes’ golden-hued bass baritone brought the attention back to the music.
American baritone Patrick O’Halloran transformed convincingly from tottering professor to young libertine and ultimately a heroin addict burdened with regret. His voice sounded tired, though, the strain thinly masked by vibrato.
Samuel Dundas (the Count in Marriage of Figaro earlier this year) gave a richly coloured portrayal of Marguerite’s brother Valentin. In fact, I would’ve liked to hear his warm lyric baritone in the title role. Fiona Campbell gave an impressive performance in a pants role as a frumpy Siebel with a voice of musky sweetness.
The WA Symphony Orchestra conducted by WA Opera artistic director Brad Cohen provided secure support to the action and the full-voiced WA Opera Chorus moved with slick choreography (Shane Placentino), creating rowdy crowd scenes with support from an excellent dance troupe and actors.
This is another unmissable show from WA Opera, one you may need to see more than once to absorb all the details.
Faust is performed tomorrow night, Tuesday, Thursday and next Saturday
INTRODUCING SOPRANO NATALIE AROYAN AS MARGUERITE IN FAUST
Armenian-Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan recalls that as a three-year-old she always wanted to be onstage and perform—as a pop singer. Since then, however, her career path has led to opera and winning competitions worldwide. Now she is making her role debut as Marguerite in WA Opera’s current production of Gounod’s Faust.
Her first role as a dramatic singer was the Red Queen in a high school production of Alice in Wonderland, which intensified her desire to be a pop star. Her parents were supportive, but insisted that she complete a university degree first, “just in case”…….So she completed a double degree in Business and I.T., but still wanted to be a pop singer.
All that changed when she heard the Armenian mezzo Lillian Ovchian in concert, and was drawn to the power of her unmiked voice. This led to an audition, where Aroyan sang some Armenian gospel songs and Ovchian’s verdict was “you were born to be an opera singer!” and agreed to teach her.
The 22 year old Aroyan knew nothing about opera and had never seen one. However she started taking three one hour lessons a week with her new mentor, who was very meticulous in introducing her to operatic vocal technique. She still sees Ovchian as her muse and inspiration, and returns to see her whenever she is in Sydney.
Fast forward a few years to 2008 when Aroyan was awarded first place in both the Opera Foundation New York Competition and the Herald Sun Aria Competition. A year later she commenced her Professional Studies Diploma at Mannes College in New York, studying with soprano Ruth Falcon and performing in both Opera Studio Scenes as well as mainstage productions.
She also attended the Solti Te Kanawa program in Tuscany, and later worked with soprano Renata Scotto in her 2010 Tampa Masterclass. This was followed by performances in Graz, Austria, where she won first place and was also awarded the audience vote in the 49th Meistersinger Competition.
On her return to Australia in 2011 she won the Italian Opera Foundation competition which took her to Italy for a year’s study with soprano Mirella Freni at her studio at the Accademia of Bel Canto in Modena. Aroyan recalls that it was a very demanding regime, with twice daily masterclasses for a week with the Maestra, (often with only one aria until it was ‘perfect’), followed by a week’s coaching in preparation for the next week’s masterclasses. It was a tough, but rewarding, regime.
Now Aroyan is a principal artist with Opera Australia: Her roles have included Mimi (which she also sang in WA Opera’s production of La Boheme in 2013); Desdemona (Otello); Micaela (Carmen); Annina in La Traviata, which she found particularly rewarding performing with WA soprano Emma Matthews as Violetta; and a role she will be reprising in OA’s Opera in the Domain in 2016. She will also be covering Gutrune in Melbourne’s Ring later next year.
WA Opera subscribers who were fortunate to attend the recent free INTRODUCTION TO OPERA TALK will have heard Aroyan sing the famous Jewel Song Ah, je ris de me voir, from Faust, and will recall the drama and passion she brought to this showpiece aria from Act Three.
Elaborating further she explains that initially in the aria she portrays Marguerite being both shocked and scared. What are these jewels doing on her doorstep? However, her demeanour (and vocal colour) changes as she sees this as a way to be worthy of Faust: That jewels will turn her into a beautiful lady, they give her confidence. However, these jewels are also connected with the devil and this is part of their seduction. “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” she jokes.
She sees herself as a spinto, (voice sitting between lyric and dramatic soprano) and in this production has to make a conscious effort to lighten or colour her voice in keeping with that of a teenage girl, “I must keep my voice sounding young, and articulate all the aspects of Marguerite’s journey: She is seduced, abandoned; corrupted by the devil [Mephisto] and ends up in a mental institution.”
In Act Four Marguerite is pregnant and abandoned by Faust. “A pillow?” I ask. Aroyan laughs then explains that she wears a special ‘pregnant’ corset, and has been rehearsing with it in order to get the right feel. “It really puts me in the character of a pregnant woman.”
She believes that she is working with a dream cast: Faust, sung by tenor Patrick O’Halloran has one of the most exciting voices she has heard; Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the devil, whose bass baritone voice is as grand and statuesque as his stage presence, makes a wonderfully charismatic Mephisto.
Finally, she gives a huge ‘bouquet’ or ‘bravo’ to our newly appointed Artistic Director, Brad Cohen, who not only brings out every nuance in Gounod’s score, and knows what he wants, but is also prepared to listen and negotiate with the singers.
It is indeed a dream cast—ENJOY.
Annie Patrick: October 2015