Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Faust: À moi les plaisirs

On Saturday, I headed downtown for the penultimate performance of Gounod's Faust, which filled Amore Opera's spring repertory staple slot this year. A fine orchestral performance, and impressively cohesive work from the chorus, supported a strong cast: a very creditable all-around effort. Director Nathan Hull used Amore's limited stable of sets intelligently, creating a staging that juxtaposed Gounod's era and the way that era imagined the opera's ostensible setting. Sixteenth-century urban spaces (looking strangely normal to anyone who's seen F.W. Murnau's amazing film of the story) surrounded townsfolk in mid-nineteenth-century garb, or approximations thereof. This is a strategy that has enjoyed a recent vogue in larger houses, and for Faust, I think it works: the passage of time is, obviously, Faust's main personal worry. In Goethe (cf. this post,) mutability on a larger scale is also a pressing, even torturing preoccupation for many: what good are new forms of knowledge if they don't alleviate human suffering? How do we explain--and counteract--evil if, in a rapidly secularizing society, we can no longer attribute it to diabolic agency? In Hull's production, Marguerite, like Faust, is fascinated by new knowledge and new ways of acquiring knowledge. She occupies her hours of petit bourgeois leisure with a stereoscope, approximating Faust's research and Valentin's travel in the only way allowed to her. Both this and the choreography suggested that the philosopher and the siblings are all the victims of Mephistopheles: a Mephistopheles who is part Caligari, part Dracula, and completely depraved. (As his power grows, his makeup becomes increasingly diabolical; there are visual echoes of Conrad Veidt's deformed hero in The Man Who Laughs. Mephistopheles' costumes and spotlights may be the kind of thing Bernard Shaw famously complained of, but as Goethe's devil remarks, turning Satan into a pantomime terror doesn't rid the world of evil's threat. Often, all Mephistopheles has to do is lurk in the background; the opera's human beings don't need much help damaging each other.

Under the baton of Douglas Martin, the orchestra contributed some of the best work I've heard from them. Aside from a slightly rough start to Act II, intonation was good, and their synchronization was tight and their playing energized. There were struggles in the brass section, but this was the only prominent weakness (the lack of harps couldn't be helped, and I found myself not really noticing at the end.) The chorus deserves praise for crisp French and expressive singing even when crowded a little desperately into a very small public square. Wagner (who gets interrupted in singing about a flea) can be a throwaway role, but Charles Gray, as the young soldier, sang with good French and good characterization, displaying a sinewy tenor with a pleasing timber. The lovelorn Siébel was Kristin Behrmann, in what has to be the most thankless of trouser roles. She threw herself into the role, and sang brightly and securely; a determined boyishness and a somewhat monochromatic mezzo couldn't rescue the part.

Jesse Malgieri had me sympathizing with Valentin in spite of myself... that is, despite how easy it can be for Valentin to seem a prig and a bully. Malgieri sang stylishly and expressively, with good phrasing and excellent French. He gave "Avant de quitter ces lieux" in a relaxed, conversational rhythm that saved it from (undue) sententiousness; his death scene showed him isolated and punished by the condemnation with which he wounds Marguerite. Gennadiy Vysotskiy acted the part of Mephistopheles with the flair and menace of a silent movie villain, and looked the part as well, sinewy and impish. Unfortunately, he didn't always seem comfortable in the role vocally. His sound was grainy and forced, compounding the problem of often unintelligible French. That said, Vysotskiy was much improved in Act III, and sang its higher-lying music quite well (I'd like to hear him as Marschner's vampiric Lord Ruthven.) As Marguerite, Iris Karlin gave an impressive performance, with vocal charisma and individuality that compensated for the character's enduring passivity. Karlin sustained the long vocal lines of the part well, in addition to exhibiting security and agility in the (in)famous "Ah! Je ris." I find the fact that Marguerite has so little spontaneity or independence irritating, but Karlin acted well. Her fierce, assertive repetitions of "Dieu juste, à toi je m'abandonne!" were brilliant, and very exciting. "Anges purs" was her triumph, as it should be. Neil Darling, as Faust, projected an air of naive virility. Darling sounded somewhat pinched in the stilted prologue, but his singing and his French improved. Looking like something out of Wodehouse, a large, amiable young man, Darling was much more credible as the earnest, first careless, then remorse-tortured young man than as the passionately analytical scholar. His full, bright tenor was used well, with dynamics and tonal color used to differentiate his manner with the other protagonists. Darling didn't sound at ease at the top of his range, but sang with great sweetness in the love duet with Marguerite, and with appropriate urgency in the final trio. I was a bit surprised that he seemed so resigned to his fate; but perhaps this very earnest young man would have thought it unforgivably bad form to protest even a Faustian bargain.


  1. Thanks for a wonderful review and insight into our production! ~Faust chorister Elisa Nikoloulias

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