Article Title:Opera: Faust by Charles Gounod
Author or Credit:Larry Jenkins
Published on:7th October 2006 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:1443
Text:Gounod's warhorse, which has opened more seasons at more opera houses ‘round the world than any other, has been given a new treatment in its present production by NBR New Zealand Opera. Presumably to point out the timelessness of Goethe's immortal novel about redemption from sin by faith in God, the piece is set in an indeterminate time period, with Elizabeth Whiting's costumes and certain props (e.g. the flags in both soldiers' scenes) refusing to anchor the story in any time or place, though at times we whiz through the turn of the 20th century and also the turn of the 21st. The action is set on John Parker's raked, dark stage with very little scenery. Rob Peters's lighting at times suggests those illustrations in old copies of the Bible that represent communications from on high by rays of light. For the most part these elements work together until the Walpurgisnacht scene in which there are far too many people crowded into the circular area at centre stage resulting in a puzzlingly chaotic-looking set piece. To the consternation of the director Mike Ashman, the Mephistopheles, Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov, was severely limited in vocal power due to an unsavoury – sounding ailment about which we learned more than we wanted to know in the pre-performance announcement. It resulted in an odd piece of patchwork with the Devil at various times becoming a lip-synching, arm waving mime while New Zealand basso Grant Dickson bravely sang his part from a music stand at the side of the stage. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it perpetrated by a professional company. Full marks to Dickson and the director for working out a not-so-bad-as-one-would-have-imagined way to avoid canceling the performance, but I'd never want to have that experience again. The Korean tenor Jaewoo Kim, heard here last season in Don Giovanni, made a suitably lightweight and lyrical Faust, rather than the more robust Italianate tenor one sometimes hears in this part. It was his debut in the part, and his could become a formidable characterization in future years. (Would that one could suddenly become young again by simply removing one's white wig and spectacles and standing up straight, as Kim was directed to do. It's a moment in opera that has never quite worked for me in any production.) Personally, I thought the weak link in the cast was mezzo Kristen Darragh as Siebel, both musically and dramatically. Hers is a voice that lurches clumsily across the break, and her acting was entirely too prissy for a passionate young man whose unrequited feelings are further made impossible to bear by the forces of evil ranged against him. Marguerite as played by French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels is no shrinking violet vocally. Hers is a fulsome spinto voice and a beautiful one at that. The “Jewel Song” received full wattage, as did the final scene, so Wagnerian in its concept and harmonies. Our own Helen Medlyn, given the miserly and ungrateful role of the widow Marthe, typically made the most of it with her superb, scene-stealing acting, fag dangling from her lips and body language telling us that here is an old tart who would indeed marry the devil if she could hook him. James Harrison, the Auckland replacement for Lexus Song Quest - winner and fast-rising international star Jared Holt, as Valentin, sang forcefully and gave us one of the most agonizing deaths possible. (For some reason, Holt only sang the Wellington performances and while it was a disappointment not to hear him, James Harrison is no slouch. His timbre is harder than the mellifluous Holt, but one could really believe his bitterness at having been so betrayed by his sister Marguerite.) French conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak held the ensemble together admirably; but the most exciting moments of this performance were provided by the Chapmann-Tripp Chorus, ever going from strength to strength under John Rosser. The men really have a thrilling testosterone-y sound and when the whole lot are singing, men and women, the Aotea Centre's problematic acoustics are no obstacle. Faust: Performed by NBR New Zealand Opera When: Thursday, 5th October 2006 Where: Aotea Centre, Auckland Larry Jenkins - 7th October 2006    
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