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Ailyn Pérez as Marguerite and Bryan Hymel as Faust [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
10 Sep 2011

Santa Fe Faust — Revisited

The distinguished soprano Patricia Racette once advised this observer, “If you are coming to the opera to review me, please attend the latest performance you can.” I knew what she meant.

Santa Fe Faust — Revisited

By James A. Van Sant

Above: Ailyn Pérez as Marguerite and Bryan Hymel as Faust [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]


Often over a run of performances, a production and the fit of singers into their roles will mature into an organic whole that eclipses earlier performances. We saw this closing night August 27 with Santa Fe Opera’s lavish production of the Gounod masterwork, Faust. It was from the first a good show — at times more ‘show’ than opera — but by the close of its run of nine performances, it was an artistic whole that proved a well-rationalized way of presenting an 1859 operatic hit to a 2011 popular audience.

Admittedly, it is hard to accept Santa Fe’s staging of Act I that had Faust still a grizzled old man when he was wheeled off stage at the end of his transformation scene. Gounod, in both direction and music, makes it clear Faust is to regain his youth, due to a deal with the devil and Méphisto’s magic, right on stage — the audience seeing him sing the second verse of his duet with Méphisto as a virile young man. Changing that through stage direction proved pointless, a silly notion of English powerhouse theatrical producer Stephen Lawless — but this talented world-class director did so many other right things for Santa Fe’s presentation, it is hard to feel anything but admiration for his work, and that of musical director Frédéric Chaslin, for between them, and with Santa Fe’s deep pockets, they produced a memorable evening of music theatre worthy of its venerable subject.

True, in many ways the production was re-set or changed, yet it caught the 19th Century spirit of Gounod’s masterpiece and made the most of it. Tenor Bryan Hymel in the title role sang the full run with poise and assurance, his brilliant top range conquering every high-B and C, with a few extras thrown in. He proved a stalwart over a long and demanding assignment. The Méphistophélès of Mark S. Doss, earlier in the season a bit hard to hear, perhaps a bit under-powered, by late August was on top of every aspect of his famous role. The voice was fine, the playing better than ever — and as usual the Devil was the audience favorite — it was ever thus for the Fallen Angel! The key role of Valentin was assumed in August by baritone Christopher Magiera, new to Santa Fe and an experienced and competent performer. Ideally, one wants to hear a more sonorous voice in this big role, yet Magiera’s smooth lyric voice and musical taste met most demands; one could relax with this Valentin and enjoy his music.

On the ladies’ side all was much as before, and again Ailyn Perèz was a Marguerite of great beauty and stage worthiness. She is an enchanting creature in her role of the girlish young woman seduced into tragedy. With three performances in seven days of a demanding role, a ‘big sing’ by any measure, the soprano on closing night seemed frankly tired. Early on her rich voice had color and point, her diction better than before, but by the end, she was close to the edge, her Trio B-naturals uneasy. Perez is a major voice; she well knows how to use it and how to inhabit a role, but she is still young and there is work to be done. There is much to be anticipated from this Chicago-born lyric soprano.

Last but foremost, the French conductor Frédéric Chaslin, serving now as Santa Fe Opera’s music director and chief conductor, proved the master of his domain. He had the orchestra honed to a fine point, all was in place, with shape and nuance lavished upon the familiar score that revitalized it and brought forth the impressive talents of the SFO Orchestra. Reports from the orchestra confirm high morale and eagerness to perform with this music master. I trust we may look forward to more French repertory under Chaslin, a former Santa Fe weak spot that is no longer a problem.

There had been rumors over the summer that the Opera would shorten the production, perhaps dropping the Parade of Courtesans scene, which offered much of the familiar Faust ballet music, if little classic ballet. Instead, each of the demi- mondaines — Salome, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Dalila, Manon and Carmen — offered her moments of temptation for the bedazzled young Faust, with plenty of effective choreographed movement (by Nicola Bowie), and sometimes humor. After twenty-minutes or so of such business, we were taken on to more serious matters; but the interval had served its purpose and reminded one how important dance and diversion are in 19th C. French opera. One had especially to appreciate the creativity of costumer Sue Willmington, scenic designer Benoit Dugardyn and the unusually effective lighting provided by Pat Collins. There was much to see, almost more than could be grasped in one viewing.

On the matter of the evening’s length, three-hours and more can be a trial for an audience seated semi-outdoors in a high-mountain environment. But, I did not notice any empty seats after the intermission, and applause and cheering at the final calls were substantial. Santa Fe’s Faust was a big production of a big opera that is not always accorded a company’s full forces these days; this time, Faust got what it deserved and Charles MacKay’s opera company showed, most impressively, what they can do if they really try. Well done!

In season 2012, two rarities, Rossini’s Maometto II and Szymanowski’s King Roger will be featured. If given the measure of quality provided Faust (and Menotti’s Last Savage) in the recent run, they should be well worth experiencing.

James A. Van Sant © 2011

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