OPERA: ‘Faust’ concert cast top-notch

With Artistic Director Antony Walker at the helm, the Washington Concert Opera (WCO) opened its 2009-10 season Sunday evening at Lisner Auditorium with a riveting performance of Charles Gounod’s “Faust.” It featured a top-notch cast of vocalists who were so familiar with the score that none of them needed the stands and sheet music that generally are a staple of concert opera.

Gounod’s 1859 musical version of the “Faust” legend is based loosely on Part 1 of Goethe’s original, in which an aging professor, about to commit suicide in his despair, strikes a bargain with Satan (Mephistopheles) to regain his youth. In pursuit of pleasure, he seduces the innocent Marguerite, bringing her to her eventual ruin. Her soul is saved from Satan’s predations, however, by her last-minute repentance.

Sunday’s WCO performance cut the showy ballet music from the finale — good stuff, but superfluous in a non-staged version.

The singing in this production was outstanding, as usual. At the top of the list was soprano Amanda Majeski as Marguerite. Although the opera is titled “Faust,” Marguerite’s fall and redemption gradually emerge as its real focus.

Miss Majeski captured every nuance of her character, from her tentative, fearful approach to Faust’s advances through the tragedy of her betrayal to her final redemption. Her voice gradually bloomed, revealing a sophisticated mastery of complex emotions, and command of her final dramatic scene brought the evening to a genuinely triumphant conclusion.

As Faust, tenor Charles Castronovo unveiled a wondrously lyric instrument which, while occasionally overwhelmed by Gounod’s large orchestral forces, ached with conflict and guilt. Initially joyful over his youthful transformation and energized by his success with Marguerite, Faust comes to regret bitterly his pact with Mephistopheles. Mr. Castronovo’s vocal approach, initially passionate and soaring, became somber and resigned as Faust’s mortal sin weighed heavily upon his soul.

“Faust” would never work, of course, without a great Mephistopheles. In bass-baritone John Relyea, WCO certainly discovered one. With a booming, powerful voice, Mr. Relyea dominated every scene in which he appeared as the devilish master of ceremonies. His over-the-top portrayal of Satanic villainy gave this concert production a drive and energy usually reserved for a staged version.

The remaining cast members — baritone Philip Cutlip as Marguerite’s brother Valentin, mezzo Leslie Mutcher in the trouser role of Siebel, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as Wagner, and mezzo Kyle Engler as Marthe — were superb. The large chorus also performed admirably, although their diction was a bit mushy at times.

The evening’s only disappointment — though not a grave one — was the WCO orchestra. Entrances were sometimes sloppy, and tempos bobbed and weaved at times. Perhaps unfamiliar with a score that’s not often performed here, they could have used a bit more rehearsal time.

But all in all, maestro Walker and his vocal and instrumental forces once again brought to Washington a connoisseur’s evening of opera with this smashing concert performance of a terrific French opera we’d like to hear a little more often.

★★★

MAXIMUM FOUR STARS

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