Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Regrets, I've Had a Few

June 22, 2010

Stefano Secco and John Relyea
Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2010

The third, and for me final, production of San Francisco Opera’s 09/10 season was Gounod’s Faust. I always have mixed feelings about seeing this opera because I continue to feel it’s a great work, but more often than not it seems to be treated with little respect or care when it arrives on stage, at least here in the U.S. I often hear other opera fans speak of it with derision, and it hardly seems like a “greatest hits” kind of show like Butterfly or Bohème. And yet, it appears time and again, as in San Francisco this weekend where it is almost like an afterthought compared to the attention and focus placed on the house’s other summer productions, La Fanciulla del West and Die Walküre. While the conducting duties of these other productions were handled respectively by San Francisco Opera’s current music director, Nicola Luisotti, and the former one, Donald Runnicles, Faust was under the guidance of Maurizio Benini. He’s an affable enough presence, I suppose, but musically, this Faust was pretty lifeless and often heavier than it needed to be. The absent lightness of touch that can make or break many of these French masterworks was in short supply on stage as well. While I do like Patricia Racette, she seemed a bit of an odd choice for Marguerite. After seeing her excel recently as both Butterfly and Suor Angelica, I’ve begun to think she comes alive most when there’s some meat and heft to her roles. Her Faust was Stefano Secco, a tenor I’ve liked elsewhere including as Don Carlo in Paris a couple of years back. This time around I felt he was a little tight in his upper register, but certainly made the most of Act II anyway. I never felt much connection between Faust and Marguerite here, but I can't say why that is. John Relyea sang Méphistophélès with a gleefulness that was certainly dark if not exactly creepy. He appeared sober throughout this performance, a trait not common among all basses I’ve witnessed in this production, so he gets big points for professionalism.

The well traveled production from Jose Maria Condemi and Robert Perdziola is efficient and not unattractive, but it’s not going to win anyone over without some kick-ass musical performances to bolster it. And though I consider all of these vocalists worthwhile performers, this was not the team that was going to sell this opera. Even the production itself appeared to be watered down. When I saw the same staging in Chicago last year, one of the creepier moments occurred in the church scene in Act IV where the large crucifix next to Méphistophélès inverts as Marguerite runs from the stage to avoid his taunting threats of eternal damnation. Not so in San Francisco on Sunday. I hope it was a technological glitch or shortcoming of some kind as opposed to any timidity over offending the sensibilities of local audiences. In any event, it was rather an unremarkable afternoon for a very beautiful opera. The production runs through July 1 for those wanting to brave the waters.



Hey Brian, I have tickets to Faust and was wondering if you know if San Fran Opera has a stage door. I'd love to meet some of the cast.

Thanks ahead,
i'm sure they must but in all honesty, I wouldn't know where it is. You might check with the illustrious Opera Tattler who you could reach via her blog or by messaging her on Twitter. If any outsider would know, it would be her.
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