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Monday, 11 November 2013 13:20

'Faust' sounded heavenly at Winter Opera

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The Details

L-R: Timothy J. Bruno, Tenor Clay Hilley, and Julia Ebner
L-R: Timothy J. Bruno, Tenor Clay Hilley, and Julia Ebner winteroperastl.org / Ron Lindsey

Long regarded by many as one of the highlights of the French grand opera tradition, Gounod's "Faust"—a beautifully sung production of which opened Winter Opera’s season—actually started life in 1859 as an opéra comique with spoken dialog instead of recitatives and without large ballet sequences. It was only the addition of the former in 1860 and the latter in 1875 that elevated Faust to the position of eminence it held in opera houses for over a century.

But in dealing with weighty subjects the reach of Gounod and his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré mostly exceed their grasp. The music still retains most of its power but the libretto has aged badly and now looks quaint and even dramatically inert at times.

"Satan", the a 1927 lyric by Leo Robin and Clifford Grey tells us, "lies awaitin' and creatin' clouds of gray."* In "Faust" Mephistopheles fills the lives of Faust, Marguerite, and Marguerite's family with clouds that aren't gray so much as the sort of greenish black we Midwesterners have come to associate with tornado season. By the end of Act 5 (Act 3 in this production), there has been enough death, scandal, and misery loosed upon the stage to fill up at least fifteen minutes of a cable news broadcast.

This could be tremendously powerful stuff, but the libretto—based on Carré's play "Faust et Marguerite," which is very freely adapted from Part 1 of Goethe’s "Faust"—deals with it in such a pedestrian way that Faust, for example, comes off as little more than a shallow fool. Tenor Clay Hilley brought a truly wonderful voice to the role, fortunately, garnering his share of "bravos". His acting was not at quite at the level of his voice—his aged Faust was too exaggerated to be credible and his youthful Faust struck me as a bit bland—but there was no gainsaying the quality of his singing.

Soprano Julia Ebner was a very effective Marguerite, with a fine, supple voice and respectable acting chops. Bass Timothy J. Bruno’s Méphistophélès was also a vocal triumph, but I felt he failed to convey the character’s menace. His mocking Act 3 serenade, "Vous qui faites l'endormie," ideally a compelling display of sheer malevolence, felt under-played to me.

One of the strongest overall performances came from baritone Eric McKeever as Marguerite’s brother Valentin. "O sainte médaille," the Act 1 aria in which he entrusts the care of Marguerite to young Siébel (a "pants" role, nicely done by mezzo Cherry Duke) was a true showstopper and got the first "bravo" of the day.

John Stephens’s direction, while serviceable, was sometimes rather static. Ensemble scenes, in particular, tended to consist of having chorus members line up, face front, and sing with very little movement. Part of the problem, of course, was that Scott Loebl’s unit set consisted of a wall with a scrim stage left, a door unit center, and a set of stairs leading down to floor level stage right. The stone wall look was great, but its size tended to push all the action downstage. I would think those stairs could have been used in some of the chorus scenes to relieve the congestion.

He did, on the other hand, come up with a neat solution to the problem posed by the lack of room for dancing in the famous Act 1 (original Act 2) waltz sequence. She brought on a pair of ballroom dancers (Stephanie Medeiros and Atanas Pavlov) to do a flashy waltz number of their own. They apparently beamed in from the 20th century, but it was certainly a theatrically effective moment.

JC Krajicek’s costumes (some of them ill fitting) seemed to have been assembled from several different shows, resulting in an opera that was apparently taking place in no fixed time or place. If that was designed to make the story more universal, I’m not sure it really worked. And that gray brocade suite for Faust made him look more silly than seductive.

Michael Mishra led the orchestra brilliantly, and their playing generally sounded quite polished. The instrumental/vocal balance was very good as well. And Nicole Aldrich's chorus sang with a precision and clarity that was wonderful to hear.

Winter Opera has come a long way in just seven seasons. Now that they’re getting some corporate sponsorship and have apparently settled in at the Viragh Center—one of the best musical theatre houses in town, hands down—I expect them to continue to be a critical part of the local opera scene. If they can get the theatrical aspects of their productions up to the same high level as the musical ones, they will truly be a force to be reckoned with.

Winter Opera’s next show is Verdi’s "Falstaff," one of the Italian master’s very best works, with a first-rate libretto by Boito. Performances are Friday and Sunday, February 7 and 9, 2014. There will also be another special "Holidays on the Hill" show December 10, 12, and 17 at Dominic’s Restaurant. Fore more information: winteroperastl.org.

*"Hallelujah," from "Hit the Deck." Music is by Vincent Youmans

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