Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

San Francisco Opera Performance of Faust

Review of the June 5, 2009 performance published on Inside Bay Area website under hedline, "Riches abound in S.F. Opera's 'Faust,'" and in papers of the Bay Area News Group.

By Cheryl North

"Short-term gain; long-term pain" — a pithy phrase a few economists might be bandying about these days. But they were also the words irreverently buzzing about in my brain during the more than three hours of sitting required for the San Francisco Opera's sumptuous production of Charles Gounod's Faust Saturday evening at the War Memorial Opera House. But, while these six little words might get to the moral heart of the timeless Faust story, they do not even begin to characterize Gounod's glorious music.

The core of the Faust legend involves a mortal making a pact with the Devil (Mephistopheles) in order to receive a temporal favor. In exchange, he must sign over his immortal soul to the Devil . While the idea of a Satanic pact has roots in both Jewish and Christian traditions, it was primarily the German ruminations and legends on that theme, dating back as far as the 1400s, from which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832, created the great magnum opus of German literature, Parts I and II of "Faust." Fortunately for the sitting muscles and bones, Gounod and his librettists, Jules Barbier and Michael Carre, chose to limit their opera to a small section of Goethe's Part I, in which the lusting Faust, his youthful vigor restored by Mephistopheles, seduces and then deserts the pious, beautiful maiden, Marguerite.

Gounod, a master of exquisite, soaring melody and pulsing, tension-building instrumental accompaniment, was also deeply religious and could build a transcendent sense of the divine into his music (he is the composer of one of the two most beloved "Ave Marias"). A number of his greatest hits are prominent in his 1849 "Faust" — the rousing "Soldiers' Chorus," the irrepressible "Kermesse Waltz," the "Jewel Song," and the thrilling, almost heart-stopping ascension into Heaven music at the opera's close .

The dominant force on San Francisco's stage Saturday was unquestionably the tall, mahogany-voiced former Adler Fellow, John Relyea in his role as Mephistopheles. With his suave demeanor, costumes, gestures and sardonic wit, he channeled a chillingly duplicitous Devil, with a wicked sense of humor.

Tenor Stefano Secco, in his debut performance as Dr. Faust, sang with an alluring tone and fine musicianship, but his portrayal of the mysterious, learned necromancer was a little underwhelming. Subsequent performances will likely push his powers up a few notches.

Beefy Brian Mulligan was a vocal stunner as Valentin, Marguerite's soldier brother, especially in his glorious baritone aria, "Avant de quitter ces lieux."

Patricia Racette was a definitive Marguerite, acting and singing with the all the alternating innocence, unabashed passion and ultimate despair the character requires. Racette's charismatic stage presence seems to grow with each succeeding role — as does the beauty and timbre of her voice.

The clarion mezzo of Daniela Mack, abetted by her well-honed boyish walk, created a fine Siebel, Marguerite's protective, would-be suitor, and Catherine Cook was a strong, amusing Marthe, Marguerite's faithful friend.

Robert Perdziola's set and Duane Schuler's lighting, originating at Chicago's Lyric Opera, could have been lifted right off the canvas of German Romantic painters Caspar David Friederich or Phillip Runge. The designers began with a basic gray stone construction resembling an old castle ruin that formed a half circle on the stage. Ingenious lighting and a few moveable props transformed the set by turns into Faust's dismal laboratory-den, a bustling central square in a village, a verdant, Romantic garden outside Marguerite's cottage, the inside of a soaring cathedral and a deep dungeon bisected by a set of ascending steps lit to look as though they soared skyward. The action was thus comfortably set in the early 19th century, rather than in some industrial-looking modern time or barren sci-fi scape.

Jose Maria Condemi, listed as the "revival director," and conductor Maurizio Benini presided over the production, while Ian Robertson and Lawrence Pech were responsible for some lively chorus singing and dancing, both on and off stage — all of which made the show well worth the three-hour sit.

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