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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Saturday Night: "Faust" at the War Memorial Opera House

Posted By on Sun, Jun 6, 2010 at 8:59 PM

Stefano Secco as Faust and John Relyea as Méphistophélès - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Stefano Secco as Faust and John Relyea as Méphistophélès

Charles Gounod's Faust
San Francisco Opera
June 5, 2010

Better than: Fruitless jaunts down to Georgia (Méphistophélès); Grecian Formula (Faust)

If any enterprising directors or costume designers would care to take a dare, I'll make a bet with you: Find a way of signifying Faust's change from geezerly scholar to studly playboy that doesn't involve him shedding a fake gray beard, and I'll do my damndest to rustle you up a fiddle of solid gold. Though its transformation of Faust's facial hair is not among them (the above photo's from a dress rehearsal), San Francisco Opera's mostly traditional staging of Charles Gounod's 1859 opera does have its worthy flourishes -- but such moments stand out as much for their own excellence as for the blandness of their context.

The Faust legend needs no introduction; a frumpy, aging academic sells his soul to Satan in exchange for renewed youth; the ensuing carousing is swell for a while, but ultimately loses its appeal, both for those caught in its wake and for Faust himself (see "soul sold to Satan" clause). Those familiar with other versions of the story may find it odd that Gounod's Faust is a title character in name only: He functions more as a catalyst for the action, rather than as a dominant, front-and-center presence. This can lend any staging of the opera a faintly unfocused or at least decentralized quality (something that's keenly felt during the four-scene third act, which feels nigh interminable; do visit the coffee bar during the second intermission). One can only imagine what productions would be like if the original ballet sequence were ever included.

Patricia Racette as Marguerite and Stefano Secco as Faust - TERRENCE MCCARTHY
  • Terrence McCarthy
  • Patricia Racette as Marguerite and Stefano Secco as Faust

Uneven performances in the main roles only exacerbated this tendency, though some singers came through commendably. As Valentin, the brother of Faust's love interest, Marguerite, baritone Brian Mulligan struck an ideal balance between resolve and tenderness, and held his own against the more dramatically complex roles. His Act II farewell to his sister ("Avant de quitter ses lieux") showed his fine, clear voice at its best. Veteran mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook was a pleasure as Marguerite's yentalike neighbor, Marthe. As Marguerite herself, soprano Patricia Racette merely turned in her usual caliber of performance -- exquisite. Her "jewel song" ("Ah! Je ris") was itself a gem, a triumph of acting and singing alike: Racette channeled her finely honed, world-class talents into a seemingly effortless portrayal of the simple joy of an ingénue.

A couple of promising young vocalists did what they could with the smaller parts: Mezzo-soprano and former Adler Fellow Daniela Mack, who shone in an unexpected appearance in 2008's Idomeneo as Idamante, capably handled a less challenging trousers role as the earnest Siebel, while baritone and current Adler Fellow Austin Kness (memorable as Sciarrone in last summer's Tosca) as Wagner succeeded at the Herculean task of encouraging his fellow soldiers to drink.

Patricia Racette as Marguerite and Brian Mulligan as Valentin - TERRENCE MCCARTHY
  • Terrence McCarthy
  • Patricia Racette as Marguerite and Brian Mulligan as Valentin

Unfortunately, the principals in the devil-soul transaction were marginally more compelling than browsing around for tchotchkes on eBay. Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea made a vocally solid and intermittently entertaining Méphistophélès, but as Satan incarnate, his performance seemed somehow neither here nor there (and slight overreliance on such tropes as the cackling laugh didn't help). Not even that much can be said with any certainty about Faust, sung by Italian tenor Stefano Secco: For a man who'd been suicidally depressed about old age, his revels in his unexpected second youth felt like so much going through the motions. Worse, it was nearly impossible to hear him during many key moments.

To be fair, the acoustic issues may not be entirely Secco's fault. It was hard to tell in Act I whether conductor Maurizio Benini's orchestra was too loud or Secco was too soft (in later acts, it seemed to be a little of both), but it was telling that the orchestra all but drowned out the opera chorus' initial performance. And in the third scene of Act III, a triumphant return from war though it is, it behooves the orchestra to remember that it's accompanying human voices rather than a martial parade.

On the visual front, Robert Perdziola's sets left nothing to be desired, working seamlessly to underscore the themes of the story. Marguerite's garden drew applause on its own when the Act II curtain rose; the abundant greenery suggested an Eden of untested innocence and lurking fecundity. Similarly, the breathtaking verticality of the stairs behind Marguerite's Act III jail cell packed emotional resonance before the scene even began. Whatever else can be said, director Jose Maria Condemi's production excelled at imagery (Méphistophélès' initial entrance was particularly clever -- and morally suggestive). Fortunately, while sets are largely static, performers aren't -- they have the potential to grow in their roles (particularly Secco, who's making his role debut). Many elements of a fine production are present; perhaps the rest will fully ripen over this summer's run.

Critic's Notebook:

Personal bias:
Even at a show that doesn't blow me away, I continue to be amazed at how many audience members flee the auditorium as soon as the final curtain drops. Enjoy the show? The performers deserve to know that when they return to take their bows. Didn't enjoy the show? The fact that you lacked the foresight to pack some aging produce in your evening bag does not excuse you from your curtain-call duties.  

Random detail: S.F. is a laid-back kind of town, and opera dress codes have been loosening for a while now, but Saturday's sightings of one patron in a Hawaiian shirt and another patron in Crocs should put to rest any myths about opera being the province of the stuffy. Can you out-dress those people? Can you turn off your cellphone when instructed? Can you stick around five minutes to applaud the performers at the end? Then you, too, can -- and should -- go to the opera.

By the way: Remaining performances are June 8, 11, 16, 20, 23, and 26, and July 1. Tickets are $15-$310; call 864-3330 or visit for more information. The performance runs 3 hours and 45 minutes, with two intermissions. Sung in French, with English supertitles.

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Emily Hilligoss


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