Perhaps it takes the nice guy to play opera’s most evil roles, but that’s just the way it tends to be for Teddy Tahu Rhodes.
Adelaide audiences will remember well Rhodes’ spine-chilling rendition of Joe De Rocher, the rapist murderer in Dead Man Walking, when that opera premiered here in 2003. And typically it’s been bad boy roles ever since for the New Zealand-born singer, whose fiercely dark baritone voice belies his easy, amiable personality.
His two other signature roles over the years have been a brutish Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (he’s even played this in Vienna) and a thrillingly sinister Don Giovanni – a role that he reprised just last year with Opera Australia.
Rhodes is so memorable in these roles because, as audiences have come to know, he gives complexity to the baddie. He makes the villain human and believable. “We all have these sides,” says Rhodes. “It’s what someone else sees in you that you don’t see yourself. I feel an obligation to fulfill what they see.” “Directors generally say it’s easier to play the bad person, and I always look ‘bad’ on stage! But ‘bad’ roles actually need a lot of thought because you have to be careful not to over-act them.”
So it makes entire sense that Rhodes should now be taking on that monster fine plus ultra, Mephistopheles, in State Opera of SA’s forthcoming production of Gounod’s Faust. His previous malefactors all seem tragically flawed beings, consumed by their arrogance. But now comes pure evil – the devil himself. Mephistopheles taunts, cajoles and tempts Faust and others around him, promising everything but stripping away their souls. Can the smiling baritone Rhodes be so devilish? To find out the answer is to discover how well he understands theatre.
“Mephistopheles is the ultimate bad guy, but to play him he’s actually the nicest character of all,” says Rhodes. “He’s a chameleon, which makes him most interesting to play. You don’t have to play him ‘bad’, and this is the key to any theatre. It’s about playing the moment. Mephistopheles is constantly there in the background, manipulating situations. But the focus is really on other people and what lengths they are willing to go in order to achieve their ambitions.” Here we must look at the work itself, which was one of the 19th century’s smash hits – “no opera in the history of the lyric theater has ever equaled the popularity of Gounod’s Faust”, wrote Burton Fisher.
Based on Goethe’s play of the same name, it ignited such an interest in the Romantic imagination precisely because it showed good and evil not as abstract external forces, but as potentialities inside us all. “Faust is one of those rare works where I find myself so invested in the characters’ emotions that I feel they are completely real,” says Rhodes. “As a story, I would just say it’s a great piece of theatre, and the music’s wonderful. If you are remotely interested in opera, you will love it. Some days I come close to being moved to tears. The music really does it for me.” Intoxicating, emotion-laden melodies indeed pour out of Faust with a naturalness that sometimes surpasses even Gounod’s great Italian and German contemporaries.
Rhodes says most people will know Marguerite’s Jewel Song, ‘Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir’, along with Faust’s main aria, ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’, and the score’s generous swathes of ballet music. “Melody, always melody, my dear child, that is the sole, the unique secret of our art,” Gounod once remarked to one of his young students. A no doubt jealous Wagner dismissed Faust as “a repellent, sugary-vulgar patchwork”, but it didn’t help that Gounod had purloined one of Germany’s literary masterpieces for its story. In retaliation his opera was known in that country by the title Margarethe – after the innocent maiden whom Mephistopheles offers to Faust as temptation.
In 2011, The Met turned Faust into a crazy nuclear physicist who repents his ways and poisons himself. But in Adelaide we will have nothing so silly. State Opera is staging David McVicar’s renowned 2004 production for the Royal Opera House under revival director Bruno Ravella. It shifts the Faustian legend from medieval Germany to 19th-century France and subtly suggests that the tormented central figure is Gounod himself.
“David McVicar’s direction of Faust at the Royal Opera House offers one hell of a good show, with an intelligent sense of the libretto’s underlying morality and terrific designs,” wrote The Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen. “I’ve got to tell you this production is amazing,” beams Rhodes. “It went so successfully in Sydney that they had to do another night. The staging is incredible, and the combination of singing and ballet dancing just extraordinary.” James Egglestone takes the role of Faust and Kate Ladner sings Marguerite – “two fabulous Australian artists, which I think is important,” he adds. That’s not bad coming from the devil himself.
Faust State Opera of SA Saturday, August 22 to Saturday, August 29 Adelaide Festival Theatre