Faust, SF Opera

Faust (San Francisco Opera, 2010)

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Stefano Secco and Patricia Racette in San Francisco Opera’s “Faust”
Photo by Cory Weaver

Opera in five acts (performed in three for this production)
By Charles François Gounod
Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré (from Goethe)
Directed by Jose Maria Condemi
Orchestra conducted by Maurizio Benini
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
June 5, 2010 (program continues through July 1)
http://sfopera.com/o/290.asp

You gotta love Patricia Racette. Having nailed all three leads in “Il Trittico” last fall both in San Francisco and then New York, our homegrown soprano went on this spring to bewitch audiences in Houston and New York with her interpretation of the title role in “Tosca.” A Merola alum and former Adler Fellow with 20 years of performing credits here, she has plunged headlong into the role of Marguerite for this production of “Faust”—and nearly lifts it from the doldrums. That she and bass-baritone John Relyea (as Mephistophélès) get the most fervent applause at the end of this long evening (almost four hours on opening night) is a credit to their impressive singing and acting.

It is also, regrettably, a point of scorn that the Italian tenor Stefano Secco, making his role debut, never rises to their level in performing the titular character. Secco’s Faust is a wimp, and he plays him as one, overemphasizing the moral ambivalence of the role to the detriment of any audience sympathy for him. Which is sad, because Secco needs all the audience sympathy he can get. In his scenes with Marguerite, he seemed distracted, too preoccupied to project any chemistry. Worse, he struggled to reach his high notes, which sounded reedy—when  they were audible over the orchestra, conducted a tad ploddingly by Maurizio Benini, in his debut at this house (which explains the unnecessary volume; unfamiliar with the auditorium, he often let the pit drown the principals).

Lucky for audiences, then, that Secco’s time onstage is limited, the better to relish Relyea’s Mephistophélès. The bass-baritone (another Merola/Adler grad) creates a deliciously sinister devil, his “Veau d’or” perfectly rambunctious and profane. He is also suave and charming in his scenes with the dowdy Marthe (sung with comic verve by mezzo Catherine Cook). Fortunate as well was the casting of baritone Brian Mulligan as Valentin, Marguerite’s virtuous brother. In a part that could easily tip the story into melodrama, Mulligan brings a credible nobility to Gounod’s felicitous melodies, singing “Avant de quitter ces lieux” with a sublime sincerity and then later managing his about-face curse aria (“Ecoute-moi bien Marguerite”) with a fierce bitterness. As Siebel, the boy entranced by Marguerite, soprano Daniela Mack has some lovely moments, bringing tenderness to the thankless trouser role, especially in her rendition of  the touching “Si le bonheur à sourire t’invite,” the frequently cut consolation aria that is thankfully restored here.

The production comes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and it is duly grand. The sets, apparently repurposed from a 1989 version of “Tancredi” (read all about it at www.operawarhorses.com), form a suitably stark backdrop for Robert Perdziola’s scenic design and costumes (updated here to the early 19th century). Recycling many of the controversial bits from director Frank Corsaro’s original version for the Lyric, Jose Maria Condemi keeps the business among principals lively and believable, given its potential for laughable histrionics. (Unfortunately, choreographer Lawrence Pech has not accomplished as much; his setting of the waltz that ends Act I is indeed risible, with the chorus exhibiting a high-school level of clunkiness more akin to a Tennessee Shuffle than a bacchanalian debauch.) Condemi has also staged a new apotheosis for the end, in which Faust must pay his debt to the devil while Marguerite alone is redeemed and admitted to heaven. Though more intellectually satisfying, it leaves the hapless Secco squirming on the floor while Relyea looms above him menacingly, with Racette scaling the stone steps toward the brilliant light above her, leaving you to wonder, as the curtain falls, if she’ll be lifted into the flies as Secco and Relyea slither down hell’s trapdoor.

Whether Condemi’s concept intentionally downplays Faust in order to highlight the emotional vicissitudes Marguerite endures for love is an open-ended discussion. The opera as written does make her the more sympathetic character (explaining perhaps why German audiences of the 19th century called the opera “Margarethe” rather than “Faust”). But whatever decisions the director made, it’s clear that Racette has run with her own interpretation of the role. She sings and acts with purpose and focus, transforming the girlish Marguerite early on (her “Jewel Song” is a delight) into a woman wrecked by abandonment (“Il ne revient pas”) and ultimately driven to madness and religious delirium (“Anges pures, anges radieux”). At these moments, it is easy to forget the stilted Secco altogether and concentrate instead on the passion she brings to her performance. With the radiant Racette onstage, Gounod’s 150-year-old work moves and inspires us still.

John Sullivan