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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Saturday: Gounod's Faust at 1652 Hayes

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2009 at 11:44 AM

click to enlarge Soprano Patricia Urbano as Marguerite
  • Soprano Patricia Urbano as Marguerite

1652 Hayes
May 24, 2009
Better than:
Overhearing your neighbor singing in the shower.

"Love, and a bit with a dog. That's what they want." One can imagine that the beleaguered theater owner who uttered that line in Shakespeare in Love would be pleased with San Francisco Parlor Opera's current production of Charles Gounod's Faust. Though no canines are expressly called for in Jules Barbier and Michel Carré's libretto, such are the risks you take when you stage grand opera in someone's back yard. For S.F. Parlor Opera is exactly what it sounds like -- a small company devoted to performing largely unadulterated classic opera in private homes and other scaled-down settings, with a net effect of something like a night at the Met meets MTV's Cribs. Faust is only the company's third production, following last year's Cosi Fan Tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro.

After complimentary wine in the living room, the audience of 30 or so trooped down to the basement for the first two scenes, where our gregarious narrator informed us that those not fluent in French were out of luck -- no subtitles. As I cast about for any shreds of high-school Gallicisms lodged in my subconscious (je voudrais une pamplemousse?), musical director Steven Bailey settled in behind the piano and the action got underway. The experience that followed was somewhat akin to watching a silent movie -- lacking specific verbal cues as to what's happening at a given moment can be frustrating, but narrator's pre-scene synopses provide an adequate starting point for the audience's imagination.

Faust (tenor Kevin Courtemanche) has spent his life pursuing knowledge, but comes to the astute realization that this is much less rewarding than the pursuit of booty. By this point he's saddled with a beard that even Just for Men can't touch, so he makes a pact with Méphistophélès (baritone Cole Grissom, one of the stronger voices in the cast) -- the return of his youth in exchange for services to be rendered later in Hell. The beard vanishes, and though our Faust still resembles George Costanza more than George Clooney, he's able to catch the eye of Marguerite (soprano Patricia Urbano) -- whose brother conveniently happens to be going off to war.

click to enlarge Baritone Cole Grissom as Mephistopheles
  • Baritone Cole Grissom as Mephistopheles

The action at this point moved to the back yard, thoughtfully accessorized with heat lamps. As Faust's seduction of Marguerite played out in the latter's garden, the neighbors over the fence decided to get a jump on their Memorial Day grilling and let the dog out for a bit. The smoke was still billowing (and our unwitting Cerberus still yapping) when we returned to the garden a couple of scenes later after another stint indoors to witness Faust (who has by this point impregnated Marguerite) slay the vengeful brother. Then it was back to the basement for the well-staged final scene -- Marguerite's redemption, after which Faust is left alone in the dark with Méphistophélès and, presumably, his conscience.

Though the opera deals with such heavy themes as temptation, murder, lust, and selling one's soul to Satan, the performers avoid the fatal mistake of taking the proceedings too seriously, even while not compromising on professionalism. And while this company may lack the elaborate staging and virtuoso voices that distinguish larger outfits, it can't be faulted for its ambition -- a production of Mozart's venerable Don Giovanni is planned for the fall -- nor for taking the risk of intimately engaging with its audience and its environs.

Personal bias: This disaffected academic would happily make her own Faustian bargain in order to recoup some of the hours she has spent in graduate literature seminars. Christ.

Random detail: Connoisseurs of French comics will appreciate the fact that Marguerite's "jewel song" aria is the signature song of an opera-singer character in The Adventures of Tintin.

By the way: Remaining performances are Thursday, May 28, and Saturday, May 30, at 7 p.m. Patrons with mobility issues are advised that the audience is required to do some stair-climbing en route from one scene to the next. Tickets are $55, wine and dessert included; visit

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Emily Hilligoss


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