Vocalist - Bass-Baritone
Faust remains appealing despite ties to past
Just ahead of its 150th birthday, Calgary Opera is currently staging a revival of Gounod's Faust. For many years, Faust was among the most-performed operas in the opera repertory, notably at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where it was the very first opera to be performed and where it went on to receive countless performances during the early years of the last century.

Over the years, however, Faust's popularity has waned, largely from over-familiarity, I suspect, but also because its principal dramatic themes --the unsavoury consequences of a pact with the devil and, conversely, the rather facile rendering of salvation --play rather uncomfortably within a modern sensibility where revealed religion plays a diminished role. The same is true of Mephistopheles, an old-fashioned personification of the devil who, in this story at least, is a largely charming and amusing fellow, if ultimately sinister. In the end, Mephistopheles' sinister elements today come across much as if he were a character from a Harry Potter book or a side player in Lord of the Rings: the stuff of children's fantasy, but not graspably real in post-Freudian times. Thus an element of the past clings to Faust as an opera.

That Faust still survives in the repertoire is, I think, because of the compelling music, which is both memorable and appealing. This is truly a melody-saturated score. And with all his Disney-like qualities, the character of Mephistopheles is still fascinating to see enacted on stage.

In its current production, Calgary Opera is fortunate to have three very fine singers in the main roles, each of whom can vocally handle his/her music with aplomb and who give credible performances dramatically.

As Faust, Marc Hervieux, familiar to Calgarians from previous operatic visits in leading roles in Romeo et Juliette and Frobisher, brings his well-developed lyric tenor voice to the role, his performance passionate and fulsome, with the top of the voice thoroughly splendid. More experienced now, Hervieux sings and acts with complete confidence--perhaps ever so slightly tending toward self-congratulation --and moves around the stage in a natural, easy fashion. While the set arias are skilfully handled and effective, his best moments come in the ensembles and duets; these draw from him his most refined singing. Dramatically, Hervieux is more successful as portraying Faust the rake than Faust the passionate lover. The benefit of which to the production is a stronger dramatic conclusion to the opera than is often the case and a sharper distinction, ultimately, between him and Marguerite.

Laura Whalen, also familiar here from her fine performances in the two recent Estacio operas and in The Magic Flute, is the production's Marguerite. As usual, Whalen sings with her distinctive and attractive vocal sound, one that has a marked clarity of delivery. Fundamentally, it is not difficult to be drawn into her role as the simple girl preyed upon by Faust. However, for me her personification of Marguerite on stage is not quite convincing as "artless simplicity" since she tends to radiate a knowing intelligence that is somewhat at odds with the presumed simplicity of her character. The big scene with the Jewel Song is certainly successful, if taken at a rather fast clip. She is best, ultimately, in the last part of the opera, especially in the final trio, for Whalen truly has the vocal goods to sing (and dominate) this most impressive moment in the opera.

Eduardo Chama, returning to Calgary after a previous appearance in The Marriage of Figaro, is entirely successful as Mephistopheles, perhaps the most completely convincingly of the main roles. Witty and clever in the dramatic side, Chama also has just the right type of voice for this "French bass" role. He has the vocal authority for the Golden Calf aria and an effective snarl when needed. He naturally draws the audience's eye, his sardonic commentary the perfect foil for the two romantic lovers.

Joshua Hopkins in his debut as Valentin, Marguerite's brother, contributes some eloquent, clear-toned singing, with a nicely focused top to his voice. The famous aria in the second act is a high point, as indeed is the death scene in the fourth act--a very fine performance in every respect. Calgary native Andrea Hill is fresh and boyish as Siebel, a vivid presence on stage and notable for her fine singing, especially the well-known aria in the second act. Lynne McMurthy as Dame Marthe and Benjamin Covey as Wagner round out the fine cast.

The production is a new one, based around a central stage image that, with the aid of clever projections, is transformed into the difference locations of the opera. The time period of the opera has been updated from the Germany of the 16th century to the time of the First World War. Valentin, for example, appears in German military uniform. More abstract than conventionally realistic, the set works best in the latter part of the opera where the locations are more easily imagined. Marguerite's trip to the dungeon is especially cleverly realized, as is the final scene with heaven's angels.

While it is inevitable that there is some dramatic awkwardness in the change of time and location, it is not so much that it will offend those of a traditional cast of mind about these things. This is recognizably the opera and not some off-the-wall perversion. Director Eda Holmes bring a number of imaginative touches to the stage action, although she is more successful in the handling of the soloists than the chorus.

The chorus, which has much to do in this opera, sings remarkably well, even with the fast speeds they are asked to sing. The scene at the fair is a bit of a disappointment, probably because it is here that the set works less well. The music of the great waltz scene (worth the whole opera for those who love a great tune) is very well realized musically, although the stage actions tend toward amateur Gilbert and Sullivan night. The setting of the chorus as a block is rather old-fashioned, but at least it gives them a chance to sing properly. Harry Frehner's lighting never fails to impress, and once again it is a strong element of the production.

Conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the conductor of Frobisher, leads a willing CPO in a brisk account of the score --a bit too brisk in places for my personal taste--but the style is idiomatic to this most French of French operas. The production gets better as it goes along, the garden scene in the middle, one of the great moments in all opera, beautiful to hear and see, with the final two acts clearly grand opera at its impressive best. This is an opera and production with something for all tastes.
Kenneth Delong, Calgary Herald
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