Monday, August 10, 2009

Festival Opera: Faust

Festival Opera
Charles Gounod
August 8, 11; 8:00 p.m.
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek

Directed and conducted by Michael Morgan

Faust: Brian Thorsett
Marguerite: Kristin Clayton
Méphistophélès: Kirk Eichelberger
Valentin: Eugene Brancoveanu
Wagner: Zachary Gordin
Siébel: Erin Neff
Marthe: Patrice Houston

With the grand ensembles of Così still ringing in my ears, I rode out to Walnut Creek for Festival Opera's production of Gounod's Faust. I'd never seen this opera before, but because it has so many famous extracts, it sounded strangely familiar anyway. During the intermission, someone rightly described it to me as the Broadway musical of its day.

It was well worth the trip just to hear Eugene Brancoveanu, whose recital in the Rex Salon I enjoyed so much last year. Although all the singing in this show was fine, when Mr. Brancoveanu's Valentin came on stage, it was like he was an entirely different creature from all the others. Besides the size & beauty of his voice, there is a tension in it which makes it exciting to hear. In the Act V confrontation trio, he was easily louder than the tenor & bass combined. In my recollection, the evening centered on his lovely Act II song & his death in Act V.

Faust was Brian Thorsett, who has a soft, reedy & pleasant voice. In the very 1st scene there was a break in his voice, & he audibly had to clear his throat. I was very worried about him for the rest of the evening, but he made it through ok, undoubtedly with some difficulty. Kristin Clayton has a big upper voice, & her Marguerite is a very serious lady. I thoroughly enjoyed Kirk Eichelberger's hammy performance as Méphistophélès. This funny & vain version of the devil frequently paused to comb his hair, like John Edwards on the campaign trail. In the church scene with Marguerite he ended up entirely topless, so for the 2nd night in a row I was watching a bare-chested opera singer.

The pit in the theater seems unusually deep, & this resulted in a good balance between the voices & the orchestra. The production is minimal, with no actual sets, though 2 large video screens hover conspicuously over the action. These display screen-saver images of flowers & then spider webs, but after a while I stopped paying attention. Props are occasionally brought out to indicate a location, though the oddest thing to appear onstage is a gigantic beach ball, which the festive revelers of Act II toss around upstage. In a shameless steal from Robert Lepage's staging of La Damnation de Faust for the Met, the opera ends with Marguerite climbing a white ladder to heaven.

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