Devil in the Details

SFO's grand, dazzling production of Faust has it all

Let’s say you’re passing a German opera house where its posters advertise tonight’s performance of Gounod’s Margarete. Say what? Is this an exciting rediscovery? Nope, just a Germanic way of distinguishing Gounod’s grand opera, Faust, from Goethe’s philosophical drama of the same name. If you buy a ticket, you’ll still hear “The Jewel Song.”

While there may be plenty of excuses to head up the hill for the Santa Fe Opera's gobsmacking new production of that Gounod standard (the first in the company's 55-year history), there's one for-sure reason: the fine-spun Marguerite of Ailyn Pérez in her SFO debut. She's the jewel in the show, beguiling and pathetic by turns. Can Pérez float a note? Don't even ask. Her voice gleams with expression, making coloratura turns seem effortless. Above all, there's personality in her technique. In the radiant trio-finale, "Anges purs, anges radieux," she combines feeling and power with the deft phrasing that characterizes everything she sings.

But she has a costar: Frédéric Chaslin, SFO’s recently appointed chief conductor. He’s the go-to guy for French opera, although he made his local debut here with 2009’s La Traviata. Chaslin’s orchestra plays with silken precision, marked by suave woodwinds, crisp work from the brasses and meticulous attention to detail. At certain times on opening night, his enthusiasm overwhelmed the singers, and minor balance issues need to be worked out, but Chaslin’s command of the score proves—yes—irresistible. He even evokes luxurious memories of Charles Munch back when the Boston Symphony Orchestra spoke French.

In the title role, Bryan Hymel sings strongly, convincingly. His tenor carries a slight nasality that suits Gallic opera, and his money note, the notorious high C in "Salut! demeure," doesn't disappoint. His bewitching duet with Pérez, "O nuit d'amour", delivers the goods as well. Mark S Doss, an SFO apprentice in 1983, plays the hard-working Méphistophéles—all sneers and demonic cackles, though lacking some of those black notes from the cellarage.
Matthew Worth's Valentin impresses with his virile stage presence and bright, elegant lyricism. As Siebel, Jennifer Holloway sings splendidly. Special honors go to Susanne Sheston, whose preparation of the many large choruses is exemplary.

If you think grand opera means eye-boggling excess (as it often does), director Stephen Lawless is your man. He piles it on, starting with a phantasmagorical fair scene: freaks, acrobats, a colossal Ferris wheel, a carousel featuring a golden calf, roller skaters and more. Who needs a jewel box when you can have a bijou jewelry store? For the death of Valentin, oh, let's have a military hospital.

We can't forget the hellzapoppin' Walpurgis Night scene, the ballet that the Paris Opéra demanded and that modern productions often omit. Lawless summons up six—count 'em, six—French opera temptresses plausibly borrowed from Saint-Sa%uFFFDns, Bizet, Massenet and (!) Antoine Mariotte.

Inexplicably, Lawless muffs Gounod's climactic scene: the forgiven, transfigured Marguerite's apotheosis. Instead of her divine ascent, the heroine flops about on the stage floor before vaguely wandering amid oversized organ pipes (hmm) while the celestial chorus exclaims, in C major ecstasy, "Christ est ressuscité!"

Still, it's a really big show and a jolly good time, if a rather long sit. Benoit Dugardyn's scenery fills the eye, especially those exotically occupied, thrust-out vitrines. Sue Willmington's costumes are worth the time, as is Pat Collins' complex lighting scheme.

But be warned: You just can't get those tunes out of your head. Like me, you'll be wandering about the house, murmuring "Avant de quitter" or "Il était un roi de Thulé," driving your beloved partner nuts. Well, so what? It's all about the music, isn't it?

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