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Ionarts at Santa Fe: 'Faust'

Faust, Santa Fe Opera, 2011 (photo by Ken Howard)
This week at Santa Fe Opera, the first with all five of the season's productions rolling, began last night with the company's first attempt at Charles Gounod's Faust. Gounod's opera is many leagues away from Goethe's source play (Part 1 | Part 2), and its metaphysical conclusion is no Mahler eighth symphony (see my preview article for much more background on the opera). That being said, it can be a rather satisfying night at the opera, which unfortunately last night's performance was not quite.

The high point of the evening was the playing of the orchestra, whose wind section in particular sounded unified, well-balanced, and colorful but in tune in the many beautiful solos and group moments in Gounod's beautifully orchestrated score. Conductor Frédéric Chaslin, in his first season as chief conductor of the Santa Fe Opera, gave the score plenty of room to breathe, not forcing any tempos too fast (in direct contrast to the work of Antonio Pappano under review last week), indeed prevailing on some of the more hasty singers to slow down and not rush things. Rubati and every little swell and other detail in the score were attended to, but not overdone. The string sound was suave, with some lovely solos, and Chaslin kept the overall sound beneath the singers, except where such a thing was impossible, due to the lack of projection from some in the cast.

The best singing came from lower down the cast list, beginning with the magnificent Siébel of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway, with velour-smooth legato and shining high notes in the character's two poignant arias in Acts III ("Faites-lui mes aveux") and IV. She was also just as convincingly male as she was as Le Prince Charmant in the 2006 Cendrillon, and her character seemed to be as much in love with Valentin, Marguerite's brother (a mostly ineffectual Matthew Worth), as he was with Marguerite. Potent mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton had a witty turn in the minor role of Marthe, and she could have stolen the show with a larger role. The chorus was hale and hearty, especially the men in the famous soldiers chorus, and the ghostly ppp singing at the death of Valentin was heartbreaking.

Walpurgisnacht, Faust, Santa Fe Opera, 2011 (photo by Ken Howard)
The Marguerite of soprano Ailyn Pérez was coquettish and charming, a pretty enough sound with a pure high pianissimo, but lacking zing and power when the role needed it, as in the final statements of Marguerite's prayer ("Anges purs, anges radieux"). Hers was an acceptable, certainly pleasant performance but not a particularly noteworthy one. Intonation suffered, worst on her final high note, which skewed unpleasantly sharp, a deficiency noted of her Countess at Wolf Trap in 2006. The Faust of tenor Bryan Hymel was somewhat better, with the high notes the role requires, but not really pretty or thrilling (when you are assigned Salut, demeure chaste et pure, you should not be outshone by the violin solo, beautiful except for the closing high notes). At the bottom of the list, perversely, was a murky Méphistophélès from Mark S. Doss, whose tone was so swallowed that he was covered most of the night by the orchestra. Apprentice Darik Knutsen, in the small role of Wagner, seemed intent on singing with his own private sense of rhythm.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Bryan Miller, A needlessly updated 'Faust' with first-rate music (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10)

Scott Cantrell, A perplexing ‘Faust’ in Santa Fe (Dallas Morning News, August 2)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Stylish production lifts a variable cast in Santa Fe Opera’s “Faust” (The Classical Review, August 2)

John Stege, Devil in the Details (Santa Fe Reporter, July 6)
Stephen Lawless, given the golden opportunity to create the first Faust in Santa Fe, delivered a staging that was as over the top as his 2009 Elixir of Love, but in all the wrong places. Updating the action to 19th-century Paris: Marguerite sits at a sewing machine instead of a spinning wheel, Méphistophélès is costumed like an undertaker or surgeon, periodically injecting people with poisons, and he gave the city scenes in Act II a grotesque circus-like atmosphere (costumes by Sue Willmington). Display cases with misfits and freaks of various kinds rolled out from the wings (sets by Benoit Dugardyn), leaving the chorus with very little to do and little room in which to do it, amid the crowd of supernumeraries (including roller skaters, Marguerite among them, in the waltz scene). By the time we got to the Walpurgisnacht scene in Act V, with the ballet music restored, there was nowhere to go. Dancers playing six of the great opera seductresses (Manon, Salome, Carmen, etc.) minced around unconvincingly (choreography by Nicola Bowie), but by this point the devil's bag of tricks was spent. If there was ever a reason why the ballet music should be cut from a staging of Gounod's Faust, this was it. A self-propelled organ in the cathedral scene, rolling around and playing on its own after Méphistophélès warms it up, was silly and only drew unwanted attention to the awful canned organ sound from the pit.

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