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Ana María Martínez (Marguerite) and Piotr Beczala (Faust) [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
06 Dec 2009

A Faust of Distinction at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second production of the 2009-10 season Lyric Opera of Chicago staged a revival of Charles Gounod’s Faust, last seen here in 2003-04.

Charles Gounod: Faust

Faust: Piotr Beczala (Oct. 23), Joseph Kaiser (Oct. 30, Nov. 3, 7); Marguerite: Ana María Martínez; Méphistophélès: René Pape (Oct. 5 - 23), Kyle Ketelsen (Oct. 30, Nov. 3, 7); Valentin: Lucas Meachem; Siébel: Katherine Lerner; Marthe: Jane Bunnell; Wagner: Corey Crider. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis. Director: Frank Corsaro.

Above: Ana María Martínez (Marguerite) and Piotr Beczala (Faust)

All photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago


The assembled cast of principals and the chorus interacted so convincingly — on both vocal and dramatic grounds — that these performances will serve as a benchmark of performing Gounod’s opera for some time to come. Making his Lyric Opera debut in these performances was Piotr Beczala, who has recently sung the role of Faust to much acclaim at a number of European venues. Marguerite was sung by Ana María Martínez, who portrayed a dramatically and lyrically incisive heroine in this her first assumption of the role. René Pape brought his considerable skills to the role of Mephistopheles, and Lucas Meachem made a great impression as a lyrical and committed Valentin.

Even before the action began on stage the orchestra under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis set the tone with a taut, controlled performance of the overture. A carefully conceived balance was achieved between strings, woodwinds, and brass with the harp then leading smoothly into a statement of Valentin’s theme. A reprise of the strings signaled then the ultimate move toward a subdued resolution.

At the start of Act I in this traditional production Faust truly looks both fatigued and aged. In his dusty laboratory corpses lay under sheets, and the newly dead are being carried in to join the others. Faust is surrounded then by death and the futility of knowledge, prompting him hence to consider suicide. His scene beginning on the word “Rien” (“Nothing”) sets the tone of resignation in the doctor’s famous soliloquy. Only the voices of peasants and youths heard from outdoors prevent Faust from drinking a goblet filled with poison to end his life in desperation. Still these glimmers of happiness and reminders of God’s bounty cause Faust only to curse human endeavor and to cry out for the support of Satan (“Satan à moi!” [“Satan appear to me!”]). From this point till near the end of the opera Mephistopheles and Faust are inexorably linked. In his movements through the set Beczala gives the impression of aging futility, while his committed singing underlines the yearning of so much not experienced in this mortal life. His delivery of the toast to this final day on earth unleashes an emotional conviction to die, highlighted by ringing and extended top notes on “Salût” (“To you”). When Mephistopheles arises, here as a vivified corpse from a laboratory table, Pape’s opening lines are sung in the stylish and effective guise of the “gentilhomme” (“cavalier”), as he describes himself with great melismatic fervor. His ensuing dialogue with Faust, in which he coaxes the doctor to reveal his desire, is performed with a lyrical ease, so that Pape assumes a likeable pose both to the hero and to the audience. When Faust confesses his desire for “la jeunesse” (“youth”), Mephistopheles produces the contract, by which Faust will sign away his soul, along with an apparition of Marguerite to secure the doctor’s commitment. At this point the vocal interaction between Beczala and Pape, in varying each other’s lines and singing in duet, was flawless and dramatically executed. Beczala’s transformation into a young man induced a lyrical enthusiasm for worldly pleasure (“À moi la plaisir” [“For me the pleasure”]) and the quest for adventure. As both figures declare “En route” (“Let us be on our way”), they abandon the confines of the musty laboratory.

René Pape as Méphistophélès

Act II in Gounod’s opera moves from the collective and crowded to the individual At the start a village fair has begun with participants including students, soldiers, young women, and townspeople. Here the Lyric Opera Chorus gave an exceptional performance in its rendition of the paean to wine. Immediately following the choral delights the young soldier Valentin becomes the center of attention. Before he leaves for battle Valentin sings of his concern for his sister Marguerite and begs God to protect her. In this role Lucas Meachem has proven his exceptional agility in the lyric baritone repertoire. From the start of his cavatina “Avant de quitter ces lieux” (“Before departing from this homeland”) Meachem imbued his words with emotional tension, showing exquisite ascending notes on “a toi” (“to You, Lord”) and “ma soeur” (“my sister”). He introduced military imagery in the middle section without bluster and concluded the cavatina on a securely extended pitch at “Roi” (“King of heaven”). The pendant aria to Valentin in this act is “Le Veau d’Or” (“The Golden Calf”) sung by Mephistopheles. Pape’s acting was equally important as he transformed the piece into a dramatic as well as lyrical turning point. Although the villagers marvel at the stranger’s tricks, Valentin becomes suspicious. Faust himself enters and, at last, has an opportunity to address Marguerite. Although she does not accept his overtures, Faust realizes that he loves her. At the close of the act Mephistopheles assures him of continued assistance in gaining Marguerite’s devotion.

The preliminaries of Acts I and II set the ground for the following two acts. In Act III the role of Siébel, sung in this production by Katherine Lerner, shows a further development of her rapt devotion for Marguerite. Ms. Lerner gave an appropriately infatuated rendition of Siébel’s entrance aria while she intoned the verses with care and lush expression. As Mephistopheles and Faust re-enter they make plans for Faust’s further pursuit of Marguerite. Faust’s cavatina “Quel trouble inconnu me pénètre?” (“What unknown care oppresses me?”) was yet another highpoint of the performance. Beczala’s voice remains strong and convincingly produced in all registers, his characterization of the love-stricken hero showing polished, graceful tones and well-placed breath control. At Marguerite’s entrance into the garden she sings the ballad of the “Roi de Thulé” (“King of Thule”), followed almost immediately by the famous jewel song in response to finding the tempting jewel case left by Mephistopheles. Ms. Martínez’s voice is here well suited to the role, her piano notes being securely projected and a burnished quality infusing the voice when she sings forte. Her performance of the trills and roulades in the second aria show also a strong technique for coloratura. After this scene the couples are paired in counterpoint: Marguerite and Faust, Marthe and Mephistopheles. The arrangement will return again later and is especially well staged in the current production. In the final duet of Act III Beczala and Martínez gave a touching rendition of the blossoming love which must, at first, wait and then can be halted no longer. (“O nuit d’amour!” [“Oh, night of love!”]). Mephistopheles laughs loudly as the two are finally united.

In Acts IV and V the earthly downfall of Marguerite becomes increasingly apparent. In the first scene of Act IV she stands at a loom lamenting in her aria this abandoned position and the scorn she senses from her former associates. Despite the faithful devotion expressed by Siébel in his following aria, Marguerite simply questions Faust’s wandering. Throughout this scene and the following, in which she prays in church for forgiveness, Martínez displays a keen sense of dramatic commitment while maintaining a lyrical command of line. In the next scene Valentin returns from the war and learns of his sister’s transgression. The dueling scene that is staged between him and the drunken Faust is a marvel of choreographic daring culminating in the soldier’s being mortally wounded. Meachem sang a convincing scene of Valentin’s death ending with a chilling curse of Marguerite as being responsible for her own dishonor as well as his death (“Marguerite! Sois maudite!” [“Marguerite, be accursed!”]).

In the final act Faust comes, with the help of Mephistopheles, to visit Marguerite in prison where she awaits execution for having murdered the child she bore to Faust. The madness communicated by Martínez is heart-wrenching as she clutches a blanket rolled up as though it were an infant. A last idyllic illusion of happiness between the lovers is sung with great fervor, as Beczala and Martínez participate in an emotional duet, enhanced by both with well executed decoration and melismas. This idyll is, however, interrupted as Mephistopheles steps forward. Marguerite’s soul is saved, as announced by voices from heaven. In this production the contract signed by Faust to serve Mephistopheles after death bursts into flames. The curtain then falls with, at least in this instance, the end of the devil’s power.

Salvatore Calomino

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