Gounod: Faust

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 6 June 2010 3 stars

Fille Despite the absence of a definitive critical edition, Gounod's Faust remains one of the most performed operas from the French repertoire. As the inaugurating piece for the San Francisco Opera summer season, this Faust came across as a mixed experience. Contributing to its success were John Relyea and Patricia Racette, whose level of artistry made the whole performance an enjoyable night.

This production of Faust was first seen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Designer Robert Perdiziola imagined this opera as a space crowded with religious imagery: Christ statues and Madonnas colonize the stage in each scene. Imposing architectural elements – tall shadowy walls and elongated windows – frame the space. Different environments were portrayed: Faust's studio; Marguerite's village in 19th century Germany; the interior of a church in which the woman goes to pray, haunted by the devil's voice; and, finally, the prison in which her madness unfolds until she is symbolically saved by angelic voices. The literal quality of the design had the unwelcome effect of overstating the narrative level of the story, making the dramatic flow somewhat heavy. At the same time, the subtle lighting by Duane Schuler conferred the space a level of sophistication that managed to highlight the multidimensionality of this opera.

As mentioned above, John Relyea and Patricia Racette revealed themselves as the dramatic and musical pivot of the first night's performance. Relyea mastered the stage from beginning to end, offering an intense and clever rendition of his role. The vocal colour he offered in the characterization of his Méfistophélès was powerful and always graceful – a true devilish gentleman. What is more, he often functioned as a catalyst for the tension between the stage and the pit. For instance, in 'Le Veau d'or' (The Song of the Golden Calf), Relyea's Méfistophélès was such an authoritative presence that he seemed to be leading both the chorus on stage and the orchestra in a fiery dance. Some diegetic moments in which he made the gesture of playing his violin – and the whole orchestra would start playing – were also effectively acted out.

Racette confirmed to be a first-class performer. She has one of the most powerful soprano lirico voices of her generation, and she seems to use her instrument with an impressive effortlessness and clarity. If her Marguerite seemed to be constrained by a stereotyped choreography, her imposing vocal presence made her a multi-dimensional woman, especially in the last act, when she slowly starts falling into madness. Her confession to Faust in Act II, one of the most moving moments of the whole evening, gave voice to an intense portrayal of love and sorrow for her dead sister ('Mon frère est soldat; j'ai perdu ma mère').

FilleStefano Secco made of his Faust an uncertain and delicate being – perhaps too feeble at times. His lines were sustained by mastery of interpretive nuances. And yet, his role suffered from a lack of vocal power throughout the performance, and he was often overpowered by the orchestra or by Racette's majestic timbre. In fact, the moments in which Secco excelled were the most intimate ones, such as the love duet between Faust and Marguerite in Act II.

The comprimario roles were effectively portrayed. Daniela Mack made for a lively Siebel: her tone was very bright, but she also managed to confer warmness and passion to her character. Brian Mulligan was a vigorous presence on stage, embodying Marguerite's sister Valentin. While his dramatic interpretation came across as quite predictable, his dense timbre made him stand out. He managed to depict a deep affection for her sister, until the moment of his pitiless curse which marks a further step in her descent into madness.

I was particularly amazed by mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, alumna of the Merola Opera Program and former Adler Fellow: her Marthe was her latest significant interpretation after a season of successes – such as that of Il trittico. She has the ability of creating warm characters and of engaging in a sympathetic relationship with the audience. In this production, she plays Marthe, Marguerite's neighbour and guardian, who cheekily flirts with Méphistophélès himself, after she learns her husband has died in war. Cook showed herself to master both the dramatic and the vocal nuances of her role, offering another of her fine executions.

FilleFaust is an opera in which ensemble scenes are fundamental in the dramatic economy, as the whole German village participates and comments on Marguerite's misfortunes, often sympathizing with her rather than with her defamers. The SF Opera chorus has offered outstanding performances throughout the whole first part of the season. In this case, their rendition was more problematic. The tableau scenes were particularly effective: as the group of performers remained still in precise moments, the emphasis astutely shifted on the illusiveness of the situations created by Méphistophélès for his victim Faust. In these moments, the rendition was breathtaking and the choreography was finely executed. Moreover, the vocal fineness of the chorus was most evident in their colour and nuances; their pianissimo was truly special – especially in the scene of the death of Valentin. On the other hand, when movement dominated the choreography a certain lack of animation and dramatic engagement was perceptible, such as in the orgiastic dances at the end of Act I.

The orchestra, conducted by Maurizio Benini, offered a fine rendition of the opera, with some uncertainties in the string section. The choice of the tempi was particularly apt, and the rubati were always precise and uniformly executed. Nonetheless, the orchestra could not sustain the intensity that Gounod's score requires: it seems the Benini's conduction was lacking incisiveness.

Overall, the extremely literal staging and some weaknesses in the musical rendition affected the first night's performance. Nonetheless, this is a Faust worth attending, especially for some of the vocal interpretations that made this opera alive once again at the War Memorial Opera House.

By Marina Romani

Photos credits: Cory Weaver and Terence McCarthy

Our interviews with Patricia Racette and John Relyea are forthcoming.


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