Stylish production lifts a variable cast in Santa Fe Opera’s “Faust”

August 02, 2011

Ailyn Perez as Marguerite and Bryan Hymel in the title role of Santa Fe Opera's "Faust." Photo: Ken Howard

Over its storied 55-year history, Santa Fe Opera is justly feted for its many commissions and dedication to the cause of American opera. Yet the company has always balanced venturesome repertoire with more familiar fare, often in thought-provoking productions.

It took more than half a century for the envelope-pushing New Mexico company to get around to their first performances of Faust, presented Monday night. While Santa Fe Opera’s Faust is hardly one for the ages vocally, it succeeds brilliantly in providing a stylish, often dazzling production that managed to make Gounod’s tale of love, sin and spiritual redemption emerge as fresh as new paint.

Director Stephen Lawless and scenic designer Benoit Dugardyn have updated the action from 16th-century Germany to La belle époque, with drop-dead gorgeous period costuming by Sue Wilmington. The city square in Act 1 is a dingy circus fair with the usual oddities (Siamese twins, bearded and fat ladies, and a midget) in large glass booths. Dugardyn’s eye-popping tableau must have taken up most of the production budget with the subsequent scenes reverting to a darkly lit Minimalism. The revamped booths return, deftly, as a church confessional through which Mephistopheles tricks Marguerite, and as Amsterdam-style show booths for the Walpurgisnacht Scene, with history’s most sensuous women each taking a turn lap-dancing for Faust (effectively choreographed by Nicola Bowie).

The chorus of soldiers are arrayed in period German regalia complete with spiked Kaiser Wilhelm headgear; the demons in the church scene with their shaved heads and long leather coats presage a more ominous manifestation of 20th-century German militarism. Yet while taking a daringly imaginative approach with several striking visuals — beautifully lit by Pat Collins — Lawless’s clever retooling treats the scenario with respect, avoiding the brand of revisionism that tells us more about the directors than the operas they are staging.

While the production was a success across the board, the light-voiced cast proved distinctly more variable Monday night.

As Faust, Bryan Hymel took a while to warm up in Act 1 until he delivered a clarion top C in the duet with Mephistopheles. From then on, he could do little wrong. The American tenor’s forthright vocalism could have used more Gallic elegance at times, but Hymel brought a vibrant and imposing tone with rich, powerfully sustained top notes as well as lyric sensitivity in Salut! demeure (too bad about the sour violin solo). The tenor also showed himself a superb actor, bringing a more complex morality to Faust than usual, as with his grief-stricken remorse after Valentin’s death.

Mark S. Doss as Mephistopheles in Santa Fe Opera's "Faust." Photo: Ken Howard

As Mephistopheles, Mark S. Doss, who has been performing this role for a quarter-century, provided  dramatic presence and saturnine swagger. Vocally, his bass-baritone emerged worn at times and narrow in range and colors, lacking the requisite dark ballast and power at the low end for the role.

Ailyn Perez as Marguerite sounded at least one size too small for the tragic heroine. The soprano possesses a pure, radiant instrument, offering some lovely singing and acting with feeling and physical grace (how many Marguerites can enter the opera on roller skates?). But there were just as many moments of uneven projection, wayward intonation and wispy-voiced vocalism. Taken at a safety-first tempo, her Jewel Song was choppily phrased and Perez was sorely underpowered in the final trio.

Similarly, Matthew Worth was a dramatically incisive but woefully light-in-the-vocal-loafers Valentin, his slender baritone disappearing in the lower register. As Siebel, Jennifer Holloway was terrific, bringing a pure-toned mezzo and rounded characterization, richly earning her Act 3 aria. Darik Knutsen was a dashing Wagner, Jamie Barton, a genuinely funny Marthe.

Frederic Chaslin, in his first season as Santa Fe’s chief conductor, led a lean and mobile performance in the pit, his balances finding a surprising astringency in Gounod’s score with brass and winds to the fore.

Faust runs through August 27.; 800-280-4654.

Comments are closed.