Lyric Opera’s searing “Faust” offers one hell of a vocal feast

Wed Oct 07, 2009 at 11:36 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Piotr Beczala as Faust, Rene Pape as Mephistopheles, and Ana Maria Martinez as Marguerite in the finale of the Lyric Opera's "Faust." Photo by Dan Rest.
Piotr Beczala as Faust, Rene Pape as Mephistopheles, and Ana Maria Martinez as Marguerite in the finale of Lyric Opera’s Faust. Photo by Dan Rest.

Charles Gounod’s Faust is near-titanium. One of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the repertoire, the uber-Catholic musical drama of the philosopher Faust’s deal with the devil for eternal youth and his seduction of the innocent Marguerite can survive the most mediocre singers and uninspired productions, its fail-safe set pieces ensuring that even a fractional Faust will send most audience members home satisfied.

Yet if Faust rarely comes off poorly, it also seldom comes off well. Too often companies are content to coast on the opera’s hits and stitch together a serviceable performance that provides passing pleasures while making one vaguely discontented and wondering why the opera remains so popular. Rarely does one encounter a consistent trio of principals and a production that makes the effort to dig beneath musty tradition to find the spiritual drama and roiling emotional intensity at the opera’s core.

Fortunately with its compelling revival of Faust, which opened Monday night, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has restored Gounod’s tale of spiritual redemption to gleaming brilliance and searing dramatic bite. Not everything worked, but this Faust serves up a magnificent cast whose soaring vocalism more than made up for the variable aspects of the production.

Robert Perdziola’s sets evoke a gloomy decayed grandeur with an atmospheric unit set of towering monastic walls. Each scene was dressed enough to disguise any visual monotony, and the production has some striking sequences: Mephostopheles instantly transforming Marguerite’s garden to a starry nocturnal landscape, effective use of the bi-level design, and, especially, a long, seemingly endless staircase for the final scene of Marguerite’s death and transfiguration.

Some of director Frank Corsaro’s ideas were dubious—-Faust’s Frankenstein laboratory–like study complete with shrouded corpses (and one important live one), Marguerite’s prominent mute presence in Act 2 long before her usual entrance, her horror at the villagers’ Rabelaisian revels, and, especially, having Faust careening around as a wasted, drunken lout in Act 4.

But, like Marguerite, Corsaro is forgiven for the consistently strong acting he drew from the entire cast and the inspired touches—-the soldiers returning as a wounded, bedraggled lot, the cumulative buildup to the final scene, and having Marguerite’s sacrifice destroy her lover Faust’s contract of bondage to Mephistopheles for eternity.

Most importantly, the Lyric’s production thoughtfully reimagines this thrice-familiar work and invests Faust with renewed dramatic bite and vivid characterization while remaining largely faithful to the score and Gounod’s intensions. Over the nearly four-hour performance (with two intervals), by the time Marguerite ascends the high stairs to her execution and salvation, we feel we’ve been through the mill with her every step of the way.

Ana Maria Martinez (Marguerite) and Piotr Beczala (Faust). Photo: Dan Rest
Ana Maria Martinez and Piotr Beczala in Faust. Photo: Dan Rest

Even more than most performances, this Faust puts Marguerite at the center, and as the innocent girl, seduced, corrupted and driven insane by Faust and the devil Mephistopheles, Ana Maria Martinez gave a powerful performance, unsettling at times in its intensity.

The Puerto Rican soprano’s lyric voice has the youthful sound and flexibility for the role and Martinez went from strength to strength as the evening unfolded.  Her Jewel Song was more cautious than brilliant opening night, taken at a steady tempo, yet Martinez soared in the love duet, rendered an expressive Il ne revient pas and provided the requisite top notes in the final scene, with opera’s most thrilling trio making its intended climactic impact.

As with nearly all modern Faust stagings, Corsaro gives his soprano a chance to indulge her inner Stanislavsky by  portraying the insane Marguerite, and, like many, Martinez’s acting at times flirted with going over the top. But she unmistakably made the pain and damage to the young girl’s life jarringly real,  and Martinez provided the entire production with a dramatic weight and power that lifted it far above the routine.

Faust (Piotr Beczala) and Mephistopheles (Rene Pape) in the village in Act 2 of Faust. Photo by Dan Rest.

As Faust, the aged philosopher who sells his cynical soul for renewed youth, Piotr Beczala made an outstanding Lyric Opera debut. The young Polish tenor is the real thing—a singer with a big vibrant instrument, notable ease of production, virile tone, and ringing top notes. Rarely does the Faust-Mephistopheles duet at the close of Act I provide such a theatrical frisson.  Beczala rose to the challenge of Salute, demeure chaste et pure with a seamless long line and requisite refinement —some miscoordination with the orchestra apart—and poured out a stream of rich, heroic tone in the love duet and final trio.

In his first Chicago outing as Mephistopheles, Rene Pape was all one expected of the celebrated German bass and more.  Vocally, Pape delivered the Song of the Golden Calf and Serenade with dark malevolence and elegant tone, his devil more of an ironic aristocrat than most.

Not only was Pape’s Mephistopheles beautifully sung, it was also a wonderfully textured performance. He handled the humor with a deft light touch—for once his pursuit by the amorous Marthe (a marvelous Jane Bunnell) was genuinely funny, and Pape  eschewed the usual devilish tropes to the production’s advantage, as with the end of Act 3, where Pape marks Marguerite’s capitulation not with raucous over-the-top laughter but with a barely audible self-satisfied chuckle.

Lucas Meachem, likewise, revitalized the role of Valentin. Marguerite’s unforgiving brother is usually played as a cardboard prig, but Meachem’s natural stage presence muted the pomposity and made him a more vital, rounded figure. The American baritone delivered an expressively poised Avant de quitter ces lieux, and his violent outburst at Marguerite’s moral “betrayal,” made for a riveting curse (though this Valentin was impressively mobile for someone who’s just been mortally wounded).

Katherine Lerner was the charming Siebel. The second-year Ryan Opera Center member was agile and aptly boyish as Marguerite’s young admirer, her youthful mezzo and spirited vocalism fully deserving of Siebel’s rarely heard second aria, Si le bonheur.

The Walpurgisnacht scene and ballet sequences were wisely jettisoned as is custom. Less well judged were the corny catfights, arm-waving and bizarro dance routines for the lusty villagers devised by “movement director” Sara Stewart.

Corey Crider was a solid Wagner, and the men of the Lyric Opera Chorus sang lustily as soldiers, though the women proved shakier in the Kermesse scene opening night.

Drawing gorgeous playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis conducted a glowing, spacious performance, which, without neglecting the drama, brought out the lyricism and warmth of Gounod’s remarkable score.

Faust runs through Nov. 7. Joseph Kaiser and Kyle Ketelsen will sing the roles of Faust and Mephistopheles Oct. 30, Nov. 3 and Nov. 7.; 312-332-2244.

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