Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Virginia Opera’s production of Charles Gounod’s “Faust” — which opened and closed at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts this past weekend — marked the welcome return to the Washington area of a classic, high-Romantic French opera that hasn’t been seen here in some time.

Well-paced and dramatically compelling, even with its relatively low-budget sets, this production hit its musical highs right on cue, although portions of the evening were marred by inconsistent singing.

No one with even a smattering of experience with Western literature can be unacquainted with the classic tale of Dr. Faustus, or Faust, the aging professor who, in despair, sells his soul to the devil to regain his youth and sensuality. It is an ancient legend but became a major Romantic literary icon when cast into the form of a novel-length epic poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s work provided endless inspiration for a bevy of 19th century composers including Liszt, Berlioz, and Boito as well as Gounod himself.

Debuting in Paris in 1859, Gounod’s “Faust” has pretty much remained in the repertoire ever since aside from a recent, nearly inexplicable hiatus which some have blamed on its old-fashioned sense of morality. Nonetheless, its music is memorable, its lurid scenes are filled with melodrama, and its villain, Satan, aka Mephistopheles, is one really bad guy, making his comeuppance in the finale all the more delicious.

Gounod’s version of the Faust legend draws only on that portion of Goethe’s poem that deals with the ill-fated affair between Faust and the innocent Marguerite. Bearing their illegitimate child, Marguerite is taunted into madness by Mephistopheles and murders her infant. Sentenced to death, she gains salvation by recognizing at last the evil in Faust and Mephistopheles and rejecting them both.

As directed by Bernard Uzan, the Virginia Opera’s “Faust” plunges the audience from the normal into the surreal, creating a hallucinatory tableau of sin and redemption. The nasty scene where Faust bullies the frantic Marguerite borders on the blasphemous, but proves a dramatic necessity, propelling the work toward its beatific vision of redemption. The work’s emotional portrayal of moral conflict is sometimes derided by modernists as decidedly out of touch with contemporary sensibilities. Yet it somehow resonated strongly in this production, perhaps unintentionally illuminating Pope Benedict XVI’s recent condemnation of the “dictatorship of relativism,” and casting this opera in an entirely different context.

The small Virginia Opera orchestra, under the baton of Peter Mark was quite effective, particularly in the smaller ensembles where it never buried the singers. The singing, however, was somewhat spotty. As Faust, lyric tenor Marcus McConico possessed an instrument perhaps a bit too light in texture for this rambunctious opera. As conceived by Gounod, Faust is a weak character. Nonetheless, his moral conflict is at the center of the work, and Mr. McConico was not always able to project this with confidence.

As Marguerite, arguably the evening’s real focal point, soprano Amanda Borst was brave, firm, and accurate, particularly in her final scenes. At times, though, earlier in the evening, her delivery was marred by a bit too much vibrato that crowded out the shape of the lyric line.

In the smaller role of Valentin, Marguerite’s unfortunate soldier-brother, baritone Daniel Olson was outstanding with a voice that was powerful and true. Mezzo-soprano Giavanna Kersulis also did a fine job in the somewhat thankless trouser role of Siebel, the young man who does a poor job of protecting Marguerite during Valentin’s absence.

But the most impressive performance of the evening was turned in by bass Burak Bilgili as the villainous Mephistopheles. Leering, bullying, and controlling the multitudes with his evil magic, Mr. Bilgili’s dominating voice imposed the rule of chaos on the evening. Gounod designed his Satanic majesty to be an over-the-top kind of devil, and Mr. Bilgili seemed more than happy to oblige, making the cathartic finale all the more electrifying.



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