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Boy wants girl. Boy sells soul to devil. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy goes to hell. Classic story.
Of course, there’s more to the Faust legend than infernal romance. The story of an aging scholar willing to trade heavenly bliss for pleasures on a more human scale contains enough philosophical conundrums and show biz tricks to have outfitted 500 years of theatrical concoctions—from didactic, medieval puppet plays to whimsical star vehicles for the likes of Fred Astaire and Dudley Moore. (New York’s Nada Theatre, in fact, is devoting this entire season to versions of Faust, with emphasis on dueling deconstructions of Marlowe and a serialization of “The Word According to Goethe.”)
A century-and-a-half after the completion of his eight-hours-plus verse play, Faust: Parts I & II, Goethe remains the ur-text for would-be adaptors. If Nada had a musical wing, it could fill another season with Goethe-inspired Faust operas alone—and a varied lot they are, each focusing on a different facet of the story. Spohr’s Faust is a misguided do-gooder. Busoni’s plays with black magic and gets burned. For Boito, prime interest lies in the cat-and-mouse game Méphistophélès plays with God. Both Berlioz and Schumann take the “favorite scenes from…” approach, each playing favorites differently.
But for Gounod, Faust is a love story. The old doctor wants youth above all, and what gets his John Hancock on the soul contract is a vision of the virginal peasant girl, Marguerite. After an opening scene remarkably brief for the material it covers—Faust’s reflections on life, his attempted suicide, the conjuring of Méphistophélès, the signing of the pact, and the restoration of Faust’s youth—the opera becomes a series of romantic encounters. Faust seduces Marguerite; who’s unsuccessfully wooed by Siebel; who’s supposed to be guarding her honor when her overprotective brother Valentin is off to war; while Méphistophélès is creating a diversionary flirtation with Marguerite’s neighbor Marthe; and choruses of merry villagers and damned souls proclaim the pleasures of love, chaste and otherwise. Everyone’s a lover in this one.
Gounod had little interest in metaphysical point-making, and was taken to task by 19th-century thinkers who sought to rescue opera from its superficial self. But the composer knew his audience, and knew also that his lyrical gifts and way with delicately etched orchestral color better suited him to l’amour than l’ame morte. (Witness his other megahit, Romeo et Juliette.) If Gounod’s Faust failed as a springboard for theological debate, it served as a new model for French opera. Owing as much of its style to the grand opera tradition as to its lighthearted cousin, the Opéra comique, it is colorful yet elegant and finds time for divertissements, but never at the expense of narrative sense.
Faust will fall flatter than a botched soufflé if it lacks a superior set of voices, and the Washington Opera seems well aware of this. An opening-night favorite from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, the opera has seen a who’s who of legendary interpreters. The current production fields a strong cast that does the roles musical justice—and often much more than that.
Past productions might have yielded more ravishingly sung Marguerites, more ardent Siebels, or more characterful Marthes, but the women here sing well, displaying an idiomatic grasp of style and a solid sense of the characters they’re playing. The men are an even more outstanding group. Jeffrey Wells’ bass-baritone is ideally suited to Gounod’s Méphistophélès, the voice dark but never heavy, possessing an aristocratic grace and smoothness of execution that befits the devil-as-nobleman the composer has created—Don Giovanni with a lighter touch and a better sense of humor. Jianyi Zhang and Victor Ledbetter sing Faust and Valentin with gorgeous tone and elegant phrasing, avoiding the all-too-common trap of allowing Wagnerian weight or verismo histrionics to overfreight music of such lyrical tenderness.
Zhang and Ledbetter are undone, though, by an inability to translate the natural drama of their voices into theatrical terms. Valentin is not the easiest character to bring to life. Unrelentingly self-absorbed, his obsession with his sister’s virginity is less the stuff of opera than of Oprah; and when Faust fatally wounds him in a duel over Marguerite’s honor, he curses her with his dying breath for ruining his life. But even this operatic creep deserves more than the blank response he gets here. As for Faust, title character or not, there’s so much subtext to the guy it should be hard for a tenor not to make some emotional connection. But as with Ledbetter, Zhang tries to get away with the stand-and-sing approach, and dramatic tension unravels around his carefully planted feet.
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This is not to say that director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer drops the ball. With the exception of a stunningly dopey soldiers’ chorus, her work is involving and imaginative, especially when the singers participate. The impulsive stage business Siebel has before her lovelorn aria is a good example of clearheaded directing and acting that seems illuminated from within. The same applies to the child’s game Marguerite plays during the “King of Thulé” lead-in to “The Jewel Song,” her balance-beam maneuvers implying a situation far more precarious for her character than their playfulness suggests. In fact, Sheryl Woods’ Marguerite is an outstanding piece of acting throughout, the qualities that made her such an affecting Gilda in Rigoletto here given wider range. The journey from trusting girl to sexually awakened lover to abandoned mother has rarely seemed so palpable and moving. Even the madness and religious ecstasy of the treacly finale really look like they come from somewhere.
The physical production, unfortunately, looks like it comes from everywhere. It’s not that any one design element is wrongheaded, just that the set seems to be at war with itself. The central disk-platform, overused in decades’ worth of “Ring” productions, is a decent all-purpose world metaphor, but when it starts flashing like a disco floor, a rather odd light is cast on those 16th-century costumes. Similarly, projected scenery has created effective, total-surround environments in dozens of recent productions, particularly those designed for other companies by Jerome Sirlin. But when projected on the upstage metal grid (what purpose does that grid serve, by the way?), the few evocative images—a cloud-filled sky becoming an engulfing ocean for the drowning of Marguerite’s baby, traditional paintings overtaken by a blood-red wash or turning into their own photographic negatives—are subsumed into what looks, most of the time, like an art-class slide show. A genuinely postmodern production, with deliberate use made of mixed periods and iconographic design elements, would be a welcome rarity at Washington Opera. In this case, it looks like no one knew quite what to do.
It’s no wonder, really. Doing Faust in 1994 means making a set of difficult choices. Here, after all, is an opera toeing a strictly 19th-century Christian line, in which virginity is prized, lust is the work of Satan, and devotion to God/country/family is an unambiguous moral good. In cynical, secular America, where sex is the universal subtext and morality is one big gray area, Faust might well be impossible to bring off unless radically reimagined, or staged as some gaslit museum curiosity. In the end, all the musical wonders wrought by Gounod and Washington Opera might not be enough to save Faust from itself.
As so often happens in opera, 19th-century pieces like Faust can seem hopelessly dated in situation and social context—not to mention the particular Furies driving characters toward their ends—whereas works composed much earlier by, say, Monteverdi or Mozart, feel so fresh and recognizable in their sensibilities that they might as well have been written in our own time. Mozart and da Ponte’s Le Nozze de Figaro is just such an evergreen. A masterpiece of dramatic construction and musical invention, this Age of Enlightenment work takes on commedia dell’arte conventions—too many disguised assignations and upstairs/downstairs shenanigans to recount here—and finds the truth in them. No need for ham-fisted moralizing when character psychology is as rich as it is here, generating a web of allegiances and betrayals too complex for black-and-white solutions. The deus ex machina in Figaro is the human heart. The final reconciliation scene packs its wallop because, in spite of the wry tone, the sparkling comedy, and music of such rarefied beauty it hints at the divine, Mozart and da Ponte have given us flesh-and-blood people, and delivered them without easy labels or prepackaged judgments.
The Washington Opera production is splendid, a model of how well traditionally staged Mozart can work in a large opera house. Here the much maligned Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production makes its return (versions of it have been seen at the Met and Paris Opera), and should confound its detractors on this outing. How evocatively those blanched walls capture the changing light of day—the opening of Act II and the finale of Act IV are breathtakingly beautiful—and how well Ponnelle’s set suits this opera, with its strong architectural lines, aptly crumbling façades, and sharply cornered hideaways that allow the audience a clear view of both the conspirators and the conspired-against.
Director Roman Terleckyj makes good use of those corners, and clears up the old sightline problems by moving the action in front of the set’s deep central alcove and keeping movement on the expanse of downstage steps more fluid than it has any right to be. Indeed, Terleckyj is able to preserve much of Ponnelle’s original staging, while adding appropriate embellishments of his own. What results is a veritable ant-farm of activity, an army of servants bustling about the big Opera House stage while intimate exchanges are kept in clear focus. The direction is consistently alive to quicksilver changes of light and shade in the score, and the singers respond with acting of tremendous brio and comic know-how.
Once again, Washington Opera casts from vocal strength, with smaller roles taken by such international veterans as Paolo Montarsolo, Ragnar Ulfung, and John Shirley-Quirk: luxury casting indeed. Lovingly conducted by Heinz Fricke, who draws playing of chamberlike refinement from his orchestra, the singers become a lucidly balanced ensemble without a weak link. Special mention might be made of Teresa Ringholz’s Susanna, delighting throughout with her bright, forwardly placed tone and crisp diction, and spinning out enchanting pianissimi in Act IV. If Jeffrey Black’s instrument is a bit more rough-and-ready than some of his colleagues’, he uses it to even more dramatic advantage as Count Almaviva, elucidating as much character detail through vocal means as through his gifts as an actor. The long-awaited American opera debut of Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny brings the refreshing surprise of a Countess, not of the usual creamy-dreamy school, but vibrant of voice and with enough fire to remind us that her character in a younger incarnation was the passionate and resourceful heroine of The Barber of Seville.
All in all, then, a winner. Now imagine if Washington Opera allied its high artistic standards to current scholarship, replaced the Met with Drottningholm as a paradigm of Mozart production, tapped into the period instrument resources at the Smithsonian, and staged these operas in the intimacy of the Eisenhower or Terrace Theaters. Any chance, Mr. Domingo?