Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The French Revolution

July 16, 2011

Bryan Hymel and Ailyn Pérez Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

The currently unfashionable Faust made its way to the stage at Santa Fe Opera for the first time this season. I say unfashionable because I've found an unusual number of opera lovers have a disdain for this once most popular of operas. This may stem from the fact that even though Gounod’s once omnipresent masterpiece still shows up regularly on opera stages, it is often mistreated with less than imaginative productions and sometimes B-list cast and conductors. Often unintentionally, opera companies approach Faust like more of a chore than a hot ticket and I think audiences pick up on that. So it is refreshing to see Santa Fe take this opera seriously, making it one of the cornerstone productions of its 2011 festival season in a new production by Stephen Lawless conducted by the festival’s Chief Conductor, Frédéric Chaslin. Santa Fe has had long-standing relationships with the works of Strauss, Mozart, and Puccini. Verdi is no stranger here and new music and world premieres are a regular occurrence. Yet with the exception of Carmen and some popular Offenbach revivals, the company has comparatively little track record with the French repertoire. But with the appointment of Chaslin, this is hopefully about to change, and as this run of Faust demonstrates, he has a lot to offer in this arena.

Act V of Faust Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Chaslin and the orchestra gave one of the most musically satisfying performances of the score I’ve yet heard live. His loving attention to dynamic contrasts were clear with a slow, thoughtful, and luxurious introduction to Act I. The remarkable detail could be seen later as well with chorus numbers and marches that were light and full of movement. This opera bogs down easily in lesser hands and oom-pah-pah lurks around every corner. Chaslin and the company have also preserved Gounod’s beautiful ballet music from Act V, which is regularly axed for time by most companies these days. With this kind of care, Santa Fe could bring about a new renaissance for French opera here in the U.S. and 2012’s planned production of Les Pecheurs de Perles is looking increasingly promising following this Faust.

Ailyn Pérez Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Chaslin’s collaborator, Lawless, has created a rather dark and sometimes strange if not always creepy version of Faust’s world. With the exception of Marguerite, and an occasional dancer, the cast is entirely dressed in black throughout. The late-Victorian look of the costumes and props stands in contrast to rows of lights and the otherwise blank shiny walls and floors of the set. There is a preoccupation with giant display cases that characters are often wheeled in on as if dioramas at The American Museum of Natural History. Marguerite’s jewel box in Act III is one such case marked “Bijouterie” with a counter and display stands with jewelry. In the Act IV church scene, a display case serves as a confessional for Méphistolphélès where he reaches through the partition and steals away Marguerite’s bastard child. Lawless can produce some great visual moments including a coffin that Faust and later Marguerite inscribe their names upon. Perhaps the most fascinating moment for me was the reinstated ballet where the women who’ve come to tempt Faust in an orgiastic dance are represented with the most famous femme fatales of opera—Carmen, Cleopatra, Manon, Dalila, Salome, and Helen of Troy—who enter in their own labeled display cases. They take turns seducing Faust who resists when the back wall parts to reveal the image of Marguerite, alone on a chair, awaiting the noose for a planned suicide. But as much as I enjoyed Lawless's visual sense of the work, there were times that dragged and some of the interpersonal chemistry between Faust, Marguerite, and Méphistolphélès was lacking in key moments.

Mark S. Doss and Bryan Hymel Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Of course, some of that could arguably be due to the cast itself, who were overall more vocally than dramatically assured. Marguerite was sung by Ailyn Pérez, who has been singing this role everywhere lately. She has a lovely and powerful voice, and her performance in the role has grown since seeing her in San Diego earlier this year. Her mad scenes were truly distraught. I find her vocally a bit darkly-hued for the part overall and the top notes do get pressured at times. But she looks the part and often sounds quite lovely. She was adequately matched with Bryan Hymel’s Faust. The young American tenor gave an athletic vocal performance with a pleasing top voice. He could get lost in the lower part of the range, but it was a solid, respectable performance. Mark S. Doss sang Méphistolphélès. He had quite a bit to do here and wields hyperdermic syringes throughout as instruments of his magical powers. This is a Satan who is as much demented surgeon as warlock, and Doss went for it physically. I found his bass rather muddy most of the evening, but he got the job done. The chorus sounded strong and I was especially appreciative that Lawless found a way to actually keep them on stage at all times when they were singing, which helped musically.

Even with a well-done Faust like this one, the opera will probably still not be for everyone. But what opera is? The good news is Santa Fe continues to maintain its high standards and is giving the kind of musical attention to this and hopefully other French operas that may make the number of people who think they dislike French opera much, much smaller. The show is on hiatus for two weeks, but will return on Aug 1 and run throughout the entire coming month.



I, too, long for reinstatement of this beautiful opera.
Hey Brian,

Don't forget that Santa Fe has done Rameau and Massenet, just for the record. Good to hear about Chaslin.

Where SF is really lacking is the Russian repertoire. they've hardly done anything.
This is true. However the Massenet operas were Cherubin and Cendrillon and each, like the Rameau only appeared once. Neither Werther or Manon has ever been performed there and the only French operas to receive multiple visits to Santa Fe belonged to Offenbach whose Belle Helene and Grand Duchess made several appearances although Hoffmann had never been seen there until last year.

I, too would love to see more Russian operas there. And despite their love of Strauss, Wagner has not been seen there except for several performances of Dutchman. Wagner's length probably doesn't help the situation either given the limits of the sunset.
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