Wednesday, June 9, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Faust, June 8, 2010


Having managed to avoid "Faust" for 25 years, I look forward to never seeing it again. A glacially paced setting of Goethe's story, Gounod's opera simply fails theatrically, and its church-endorsed propaganda has not weathered the past 150 years well.
This is no fault of the forces at SFO, who gave a flawed but ambitious performance. The production's primary delight is right where it should be: bass-baritone John Relyea's Mephistopheles. Relyea delivers a prototypical black-licorice thundervoice (particularly in the second-act golden calf song, "Le veau d'or"), and he and stage director Jose Maria Condemi leave no comic stone unturned: covering the eyes of a Madonna statue during the seduction scene, coughing and waving away the special-effects smoke, dragging a harlot by the ankles. The techie tricks are nice, too, including a shattering sword, a well with an elevator and a statue that bleeds wine.

Another large presence is Brian Mulligan as Margeurite's brother Valentin. Mulligan's baritone has tremendous size and power, and he plays the role with passionate intensity, particularly in his fatal duel with Faust.

Italian tenor Stefano Secco played the milquetoast title character a little too wimpy. Vocally, he delivers tremendous top-notes, but fails to maintain his energy at the less-spectacular moments. This was true especially of the famed cavatine "Salut! demeure chaste et pure."

The most distressing disappointment came from soprano Patricia Racette as Margeurite. Racette displays a few elements of her estimable palette - her care for crafting the quiet passages, her abiity to imbue a doormat character with personality and pathos (the spinning air, "Il ne reveient pas") but her top notes were unstable, weighted down by an oversize vibrato and unclear pitch. Racette is a personal favorite, so I'm hoping she was just having a bad night.

Mezzo Daniela Mack was a complete delight as Margeurite's young admirer, Siebel (the flower song, "Faites-lui mes aveux"). Condemi and the chorus created a lively crowd for the fairgrounds scene. The nighttime garden is a marvel of blue lights (lighting designer Duane Schuler) and the final-scene stairway to heaven from the Chicago Lyric production (designer Robert Perdziola) is dazzling. Maurizio Benini and orchestra handled Gounod's elegant score with aplomb (with help from Ernest Knell's backstage organ work). Mephistopheles' gypsy-fiddler outfit is wild and fun (costume supervisor Kristi Johnson)

Through July 1 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$360. 415/864-3330.

Image: soprano Patricia Racette (Margeurite) and tenor Stefano Secco (Faust). Photo by Cory Weaver.


Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the opera novel "Gabriella's Voice," available at amazon.com. The sequel, "Operaville," will be released this fall, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis.