Clonter Opera Farm
17 July 2014 to 26 July 2014
Just 40 years ago, dairy farmer and opera enthusiast Jeffery Lockett put on, for one night only, a charity fund-raising “Opera Picnic” among the straw bales in the barn of his farm at Clonter in Cheshire. As we now know, that event blossomed into the opera centre we know today, with a 400-seat theatre attached to the barn.
His choice of opera to celebrate this remarkable anniversary is Gounod’s Faust. It would seem to be an impossibly ambitious choice, since it is a grand opera in five acts, including a ballet, and a full production calls for a chorus so large, and sets and costumes so elaborate, that even the big companies, with the notable exception of the Met in New York, tend to shy away from it these days.
However, the inventive Clonter take on this mighty work, led by director Michael McCaffery and conductor Clive Timms, turns out to be bold, breathtaking and, in the end, brilliant.
The staging absolutely captures the decadent pleasure-bent atmosphere of 1860s Paris. Designer Elroy Ashmore’s set, imaginatively lit by David L Sadler, is a giant semi-circular hall of mirrors with a small Palace of Varieties theatre stage, red plush curtains and all, at its centre. It put me in mind, in a positive sense, of a delapidated Victorian ballroom, where even the stage is askew. The theatricality works a treat. The truly climactic last two acts are visually spellbinding. The candle-lit church scene, with fairy lights in all those mirrors, of Act 4, stressing the importance in all this of the Catholic church, is unforgettable. Both acts are dramatically breathtaking.
McCaffery’s innovaton is introducing English spoken dialogue to make it all manageable and more accessible. Early on, he is in danger of turning the work into a melodramatic Gothic play (not very well acted) with songs rather than an opera with dialogue. But it evens out in the end.
After all, it is a famous yarn as the old scholar Faust, taken in by Mephistopheles, sells his soul to the Devil to rediscover his lost youth and enjoy his earthly pleasures. Live now, pay later - with a vengeance. He desires the virginal Marguerite and Mephistopholes drives him to deflower her. It all ends in heartbreak, of course, except that religious fervour wins out.
The singing overall is first-rate. In the central role of Marguerite, soprano Anna Gillingham is altogether captivating and sings gloriously, especially but not only in the high register. Her singing of the popular Jewel Song in Act 3 is full of innocence, contrasting with her later darker arias.
Mephistopheles, a boo-able figure in black and red, is reminiscent of MC in Cabaret, swaggering, would-be amusing, threatening. Austrian bass Javier Borda, a big man, fills the part splendidly. Paul Curievic, a fine tenor, makes a convincing Faust, as old man and playboy, and Christopher Cull, a fine baritone, impresses as Marguerite’s soldier brother Valentine. Katherine Aitken, Heather Ireson, Thomas Hopkinson and Dominick Felix are effective in the supporting roles.
Clive Timms conducts Gounod’s score, from the threatening depths to the tuneful popular songs, with fine attention to detail and the 14-strong Clonter Sinfonia responds in style.
The choice of Faust is particularly poignant for Jeffery Lockett. His mother, the mezzo Betty Bannerman, sang in the 1947 recording with Sir Thomas Beecham. To pull it off is a real achievement. There will be one more performance at Clonter on 27 September.
Reviewer: Philip Radcliffe