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Virginia Opera's April 17 performance of Charles Gounod's Faust, in Richmond's finely-restored Landmark Theater, made the strongest possible case for a traditional staging. Within realistic-looking unit sets, Stage Director Bernard Uzan applied an astute sense of the theatrical to heighten dramatic interaction. Maximum use of contrast – of the metaphorical dichotomy of light versus dark, and of good versus evil – was made by Lighting Designer Donald Edmund Thomas. The main characters were strongly cast, sang at very high standards, had excellent French diction, and were convincing in their roles, physically. As usual, Peter Mark conducted with a firm baton, treating his singers with care but keeping tight reins on the flow of the drama. For this production, the pit was staffed by the very able members of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. The horns played with great sensitivity and were superbly balanced. Ralph Skiano's numerous clarinet solos were memorable.
Gounod based his opera on Goethe's play, but he focused so much on the story of Faust's seduction that the Germans – for whom the playwright was a god – used to call the opera Marguerite. Both Berlioz and Boïto created operas with stronger literary treatments of the play, but Gounod's is full of wonderful arias, ensembles, and choruses.
Virginia Opera's production is so imaginatively staged that I'll include three examples here:
*The opening scene, showing the aging Faust considering suicide before rashly offering his soul to Satan, differed considerably from the norm. Here, the white-whiskered and bent Faust is alone in his library, some of which has overflowed into a pile in mid-stage. When he calls upon the devil, a mirror-image of Faust himself rises from the pile of books. Méphistophélès then mirrors and mocks Faust throughout the scene, and both become young when Faust drinks the potion.
*Later in the opera, the scene in which Marguerite seeks forgiveness in the church was devastating. Méphistophélès, attired as a red-robed priest, condemns her and his demons, in the guise of monks and nuns, echo him. Even the life-sized Christ comes down from the cross to join in condemnation – with the Virgin Mary!
*In the last scene, as Marguerite is welcomed by the Heavenly Chorus, Méphistophélès writhes in a bright beam of light. The effect is greatly heightened in this production by having the chorus sing from the upper balcony of the theater instead of merely offstage.
Tenor Marcus McConico, as Faust, combined a lithe figure with a voice that, while not large, has a lovely timbre and was used with considerable expressive nuance. His ability to weld Faust's anguish to his vocal line reminded me of my benchmark singer for the role, the late Alfredo Kraus. His high notes at the end of "A moi les plaisirs" rang gloriously, and his ardent passion in "Salut! demeure chaste et pure" was underlined by a sterling violin solo, played by Concertmaster Karen Johnson.
Bass Burak Bilgli possesses stage presence in spades! His solid and evenly-balanced voice resonated throughout the theater. He applied wide nuances of color to convey the depths of evil in Méphistophélès. The Kermesse Scene, with its boisterous aria "Le veau d'or est toujours debout," was a tour de force, sung with seeming abandonment as Bilgli leaped from tabletop to stage and all about.
Amanda Borst's lovely dramatic soprano voice easily filled the theater. With perfect control of line and pitch, she "painted" with an extraordinary range of shading as she portrayed Marguerite's innocence, her initial confused feelings of love, her shame after Faust's abandonment, and finally her shattering descent into madness, after she is cursed by her dying brother. Her performance of the great aria "Il était un roi de Thulé" was as unconventional as it was dramatically effective. Instead of the usual staging, in which it is sung while she darns or sews, Borst read a storybook to two children who brought her back to the story each time she began to think of Faust.
Daniel Olson displayed fine stage presence and a warmly resonant baritone voice in the role of Marguerite's brother Valentin. His singing of the memorable "Avant de quitter ces lieux" was marvelous, and his cursing of his sister was perfectly sung and emotionally charged.
Baritone Todd Robinson sang Wagner, a student, solidly.
It says much for the high level of the Virginia Opera's training programs that two artists who have sung considerably in the company's educational programs turned in first-rate performances. Perhaps a future Oscar for Verdi's Un ballo in maschera or an Octavian for Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier was heard in mezzo-soprano Giavanna Kersulis' spirited and well-sung Siébel. Her slim figure and assumption of male body language made her portrayal most effective. She has a splendid timbre and admirable vocal control. A fine comedic sense combined with a dark, low mezzo-soprano range helped make Adriane Shelton's Dame Marthe Schwerlein unforgettable. Her clueless flirting and subsequent lovesick pursuit of increasingly exasperated Méphistophélès was a hoot! Never was Satan so besieged!