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Faust at HGO
08 Feb 2007

Houston stages a provocative “Faust”

A literary critic once recalled the day when a German could not clear his throat “without finding pithy precedent in Goethe.”

Yet, although the long-lived author’s “Faust” is without question one of the great works of world literature, the drama — near-impossible to render in verse in another language — is also among the most unread.

Indeed, most non-Germans who know the Faust story today are familiar with it through the re-telling of the horrors resulting from an aged professor’s pact with the Devil through Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera, billed in Germany for its focus on the Faust-Gretchen relationship as “Marguerite.”

Clearly a chestnut of the repertory, “Faust” is on stage this season for some 200 performances by 18 opera companies around the world. It is viewed, however, with feelings ranging from amusement to scorn by those who know the original; for them the opera offers at best an echo of Goethe’s protein-rich profundity.

The production of Gounod’s score currently on stage at the Houston Grand Opera contradicts them sharply. This is due in large part to the superlative conducting of Germany’s youthful Sebastian Lang-Lessing, now top maestro in both Nancy and Tasmania. He lays bare in this music a gravity and an undertow of sadness usually inaudible behind the glitter of the score and the many “hits” that explain its popularity.

Lang-Lessing, a frequent Houston guest, evokes superb playing from the ensemble that HGO music director Patrick Summers has so carefully built over the past several seasons. He makes a meaningful whole of Gounod’s somewhat disparate scenes, bringing both cohesion and dramatic intensity to the work.

The well-traveled production, when new here in 1985, was directed by Francesca Zambello; it has been revived by Elizabeth Bachman, who underscores the correctness of the conductor’s approach.

Drawing card of its return to the Brown Theater in the Wortham Center is Samuel Ramey as Mephistopheles, only one of the darkly Satanic figures among his signature roles.

Aside from an occasional wobble in the lowest notes, Ramey, well into his 60s, remains in his prime and accounts for much of the energy that drives the staging, seen on 26 January and again on January 28. There is no sign of wear in the voice, and the joy that he brings to his work infects all in the cast. The world’s reigning Don Giovanni for decades, Ramey remains a dashing presence.

The first act with Mephistopheles’ celebration of the Golden Calf is, of course, Ramey’s. He knows, however, that it is the love story that is the heart of “Faust” and takes care in Acts Two and Three not to steal the show..

Indeed, the scholars who interpret Goethe’s text have often suggested that Mephistopheles is not a separate being, but rather that “other soul” in the Faustian breast — that daemonic force that so often proves destructive both to its owner and those who fall to his force.

On January 26 an indisposed William Burden, a trifle sophomoric after his rejuvenation, surrendered the title role to veteran American tenor Gregory Kunde, last heard at the HGO as Pinkerton in 1983. Kunde, a gentle and sensitive Faust, took over the role completely for the matinee on January 29.

Tamasr Iveri from once-Soviet Georgia, is an un-Germanic Marguerite, happily freed from the blond braids and dirndl that — for those old enough to remember that era — often make her seem a survivor of the Hitler Youth. Overflowing with youthful elan as the work opens, Iveri is deeply feminine and movingly vulnerable as she moves through love to tragedy.

She explores the wonder of passion touchingly in the ballad “King in Thule.” Her “Jewel Song” is both jubilant and pensive, and she portrays Marguerite’s Ophelia-inspired derangement in the prison scene with Shakespearean pathos.

As Valentine Earle Patriarco avoids the tin-soldier trappings once thought essential to the role and sings the famous “Prayer” with melting warmth.

And in the mass military scene surrounding his return from battle it was a contemporary “bring-the-troops-home-now” touch to haul a badly wounded returnee on stage on a stretcher.

Gounod’s first made his mark as a composer for the church, and one might wish that he had concluded “Faust” with the powerful “Dies irae” from the Requiem for brother Valentine.

This is haunting music, obviously the work of a man of faith, and Earl Staley did well to break with the opulent naturalism of the staging to set it on a bleak and darkened stage dominated by an immense cross..

“Faust,” even when performed — as it is here — without the apocryphal “Walp;urgis Night.” is a long opera, and would be effective without the final Prison scene, although it is, of course, taken directly from Goethe.

In conclusion, a reminiscence: the music of “Faust” first came my way in my South Dakota childhood during the Great Depression. An early-morning Minneapolis disc jockey, sponsored by Dayton’s, played this final scene with a frequency that I found uncalled for.

The recording was in English and the claim that marguerite was “saved” versus the certainty that she was “damned” recalled Salvation Army Saturday night curb-side musicales, a further source of music in that distant, dismal day.

Perhaps it is for that reason that I still feel today that Gounod bathed somewhat excessively in the Blood of the Lamb.

And, finally, a moment of happy recall.

Sam Ramey, then just a kid from Colby, Kansas, first stood on an opera stage as an apprentice at the Central City Opera in 1963. He was in the chorus of a fine “Don Giovanni.”

Not surprising, perhaps, that he was to rule the Mozart world in that role for decades of his long career.

Wes Blomster

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