San Diego Opera’s “Faust”: About As Good As It Gets!

San Diego Opera “Faust” Opera Review

By David Gregson, “Opera West”

Sunday, April 24, 2011

My history with San Diego Opera productions of Gounod’s “Faust” dates back to 1966 when the company was about one year old. It was sung in English and the tile role was taken over at “the last minute” so to speak, by a virtually unknown "Mexican" tenor, Plácido Domingo (born in Madrid!). He sang in French with momentary bits of interpolated English, a fact which I found hilarious at the time. I recall I wasn’t sure if this man would go very far, an eternal blot on my credentials as an opera critic! At any rate, it wasn’t too long before I saw how wrong I had been.

I may possibly excuse my younger self on the basis of the fact that even earlier than this San Diego Opera production, I had seen “Faust” – my very first opera, I think – at San Diego’s Fox Theater (now Copley Symphony Hall) in a 1955 traveling production presented by the San Francisco Opera. It was a “dream cast”: Jan Peerce (Faust), Licia Albanese (Marguerite), Cesare Siepi (Méphistophélès), Cornell MacNeil (Valentin), and Margaret Roggiero (Siebel). In retrospect, however, I have to say Peerce, as impressive as he was, never had the beautiful voice that Domingo had. I say “had” because the wonderful Domingo voice that still survives is very different now.

I have heard all the San Diego Opera “Faust’s,” in fact – the 1970 production (with fantastic Norman Treigle as the Devil), the 1981 effort (which I have forgotten almost totally), the really, really memorable 1988 production (Diana Soviero, Richard Leech, Ferruccio Furlanetto, and Jane Bunnell, conducted by Karen Keltner). Bunnell, Siébel in ’88, returns as Marthe in the current show, along with a triumphant Karen Keltner luxuriating in the stellar work of the San Diego Symphony. Keltner seems to have an affinity for Gounod!

For indeed, this current “Faust” is about as good as it gets. A jaded “Faust” veteran like me hardly looks forward to yet another one – all those aforementioned San Diego “Faust’s” being but a paltry few in the total number I have taken in willingly or unwillingly over the decades. Of all the standard French masterpieces, “Faust” and “Carmen” are the most overexposed. But Saturday night was pure pleasure, the whole long piece practically flashing by as I waited to hear some more good singing, some more fine ensembles, and all that makes opera worth living for.

To begin with, American tenor Stephen Costello, an artist I have had some doubts about in the past, is brilliant as Faust, looking the role as they say and sounding pretty glorious. A gorgeous, plangent sound. I love the way he approaches the high lying notes in the role – one that suits him perfectly. I did not like his Roméo last season half as well as this Faust. And I had some fears during the second night of his just completed cameo in “Der Rosenkavalier”. But this was just fine.

Mrs. Costello, better known as soprano Ailyn Pérez, is a stunning and moving Marguerite. I have always thought of this role as requiring a light lyric coloratura in one part of the opera and a dramatic lyric soprano in another – but she managed to make the entire role a single colorist piece, the same lovely voice from beginning to end. She was always Marguerite; that is, she demonstrated a beautifully nuanced progression of character from the innocent young girl to the tragic outcast, all superbly vocalized.

I am a great fan of American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, and although I am not convinced Méphistophélès is his strongest role to date, he certainly filled Satan’s shoes well enough. This production, imaginatively directed by David Gately, gave the singer many varied theatrical opportunities. He morphs from a dissected corpse into a handsomely dressed gentleman in evening clothes (though without the feather plume and cape indicated by the Digitext titles or the French words we hear being sung), and is next seen as a sort of carnival barker traveling with a hellish Hieronymus Bosch-like tented wagon. So he remains visually protean, but always evil and singing with impressively menacing tones.

This may be the place to mention the excellent, if often derivative, stage direction. Frank Corarso directed a very similar show using sets and costumes designed by Robert Perdziola and owned by the Chicago Lyric Opera, although the sets were built here at SD Opera’s shop. Corsaro also directed another “Faust” with the New York City Opera back in the days of Beverly Sills and Norman Triegle. Both of these Corsaro shows featured an ending in which Marguerite is led up the stairs to meet an executioner, and both featured a corpse becoming Méphistophélès. When I saw these sets and costumes in Chicago not so long ago, Marguerite was still being executed – but Gately, who really displays a deft directorial hand throughout this show, sends our heroine up on a long staircase to Heaven – a wise choice for Easter eve and whilst an angelic chorus is singing “Christ is risen!” I prefer this ending to the ironic Corsaro twist – and it’s more in the spirit of the original.

Speaking of the original, maybe America’s new-found interest in dance will lead some day to the restoration of two scenes now regularly missing from “Faust”: The Witches Sabbath scene in the Harz Mountains and the Cavern of Beautiful Queens from Antiquity scene. Frankly, I don’t even remember very clearly ever seeing these anywhere in the world – although I am certain I saw a hellish ballet sequence at least once or twice in the distant past. Today opera ballets and dance sequences (with some notable exceptions including “Aida”) are thought to drag down the action and make the evening too long.

If I am not gravely mistaken, some of the “Faust” “Let’s fly through the air to the jailhouse before dawn” music remains in the score as Faust and Méphistophélès come rushing into the prison at the end. That connects somehow with the missing scenes.

The current “Faust” also benefits from a superb Valentin, American baritone Brian Mulligan (replacing another artist who cancelled). Mulligan possesses a wonderful full, rich voice and he makes a fine stage presence. I felt, however, he sang too consistently at the same volume level – namely loud – which is nice if you are sitting far back, but some dynamic vocal shading would have been appreciated. It seemed to me he was overeager to make a good impression. I was indeed very impressed, but I’d like to see this fine artist put more thought into shaping his vocal line.

The earnest young man chasing Marguerite all over the place and withering flowers in the process was New Zealand mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle, charming in her trouser role. Lovely to hear and quite convincing as a callow youth. And American soprano Jane Bunnell rounded out the cast nicely as a delightful Marthe – in pursuit of a beau, the Devil himself. And bass-baritone Scott Sikon was excellent in the small role of Wagner.

The rather neat looking quasi-representational unit sets were intelligently and creatively lighted by Michael Whitfield. There was lots of spirited and enjoyable choreography by Javier Velasco. Walter Huff, the acting chorus master, got the best work possible out of the opera chorus, although they took a little while at the beginning to hit their stride. And – that terrific fight director! Dale Anthony Girard. What great work he does! His masterpiece was that “Romeo and Juliet” last year – but only because there’s lots more fighting in that story. Girard’s work really stands out.

All and all – a fine evening — even for a jaded operagoer.

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