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The ultimate damnation of Faust

October 21, 2008

  • date
    October 21, 2008
  • article type
    Press
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    Opera Carolina News

The ultimate damnation of Faust

If you heard the live WDAV-FM broadcast of the Opera Carolina season opener, Charles Gounod's Faust, and were suitably impressed last Saturday night, an in-person look as the production returns this week to Belk Theater is worth the extra investment. Chester Patton's debut as Mephostophiles is simply a triumph of the highest magnitude. You'll hear the bass baritone's awesome low notes and his demonic laugh to better advantage in the hall as he sings the "Golden Calf Song" and his mocking serenade to Marguerite, "Vous qui faites l'endormie," after his protégé has stolen her chastity.

Seeing Patton's cackling malevolence onstage -- his grandly gallant gestures, his athletic leaps and his gleaming smiles -- is an equal treat. Stage director Bernard Uzan and costume designer John Lehmeyer conspire to dress Mephosto and Faust in nearly identical outfits all evening long, an intriguing touch. James Valenti, a tenor who can reach the high notes with impassioned strength and soften his fervor to melting effect, certainly didn't disgrace the uniforms as Faust. At times, a little more imperious steel in Valenti's voice would remind us that Faust is a cad, deserving his ultimate damnation.

Other members of the cast aren't quite in the same high echelon. Maureen O'Flynn gives an enchanting account of Marguerite's famed "Jewel Song," and her transfiguration in the final redemption scene -- after coming dramatically to life for the climactic trio with Faust and Mephosto -- is positively luminous. Elsewhere, O'Flynn tended to be pallid, as if she were conserving herself for those signature moments. So while the cuts and reshuffles made by conductor James Meena mercifully shorten the soprano's workday and keep the overall playing time at just over 2:31 (plus two 20-minute intermissions), I must mercilessly disapprove of the havoc wreaked on the storyline.

Diane McEwen-Martin probably isn't destined for a glowing international career, but the young soprano is quite adequate for the role of Siebel, Faust's hapless rival for Marguerite's affection. Likewise, Kim Blanchard is ravenous enough as the comical Marthe to give the devil himself reason to flee her shameless advances. The silver lining is harder to find in Corey McKern's portrayal of Valentin, Marguerite's protective brother. Uzan and Meena should have auditioned him before they signed him.

Meyerbeer, who dominated France's operatic scene before Gounod came along, passed on this libretto, dismissing it as a desecration of Goethe's great dramatic epic. True enough, but once you jump over the language hurdle on the wings of supertitles, this Gounod evergreen comes almost as close as Bizet's Carmen to sounding and playing like a Broadway musical. And if Patton's performance never makes it to CD or DVD -- as it surely should -- you can still say you saw it here.

By Perry Tannenbaum
Creative Loafing