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Gounod, Faust:  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of  Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor) Civic Opera House, Chicago, 17.10.2009 (JLZ) .


Stage Director: Frank Corsaro
Set and Designer: Robert Perdziola
Lighting:  Christine Binder
Chorus Master - Donald Nally
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis


Faust: Piotr Beczala
Mephistopheles: René Pape
Wagner: Corey Crider
Valentin Lucas Meachem
Siébel: Katherine Lerner
Marguerite: Ana María Martínez
Marthe: Jane Bunnell

With its solid cast of principals, Gounod’s Faust has a vibrant revival at Lyric Opera of Chicago, its second production of the 2009-2010 season. In presenting the full score of the opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago wisely offered two intermissions, one after the second act, the other after the third, so that it could incorporate the mill scene with Marguerite, which some productions omit. By avoiding the cut, the opera contains a fuller characterization of Marguerite, and as a result, strategically sets up the dénouement in the final act.

In this production Ana María Martínez is a persuasive Marguerite, with her vocal expertise supported by fine acting. She captures the role both musically and physically, as witnessed by the two arias in the third act, the ballad  of the King of Thule (“Il était un roi de Thulé”) and the subsequent “Jewel Song” (“Oh, Dieu, que de bijoux!”). Martínez’s pacing allowed the full impact of the ballad of the King of Thule to show through, with its poignant ending emerging with subtlety and poise. If Marguerite is cautious about Faust up to that point in the opera, her youthful delight enlivens the familiar “Jewel Song” to make it an exciting expression of enchantment. Martínez moved nicely from wariness to curiosity with her phrasing, and also in the way she opened the jewel box for increasingly longer intervals. At the end, her intoxication with the gift was expressed in the full-bodied melisma with which the number ends and Martínez expressed Marguerite’s delight splendidly. Her infatuation finds expression in the duet with Faust, “Laisse-moi contempler ton visage,” which here displayed all the expression of passion that Gounod intended for this piece. Martínez’s fluid sound melded beautifully with Piotr Beczala, who made his Chicago debut in this production.

As Faust, Beczala delivered a practically flawless performance of this demanding role. His resonant tone suited the style of the work seamlessly, never flagging at any point in the production. His depiction of the aged Faust was particularly convincing, since he did not resort to exaggerated acting to create the opening scene, but simply allowed Gounod’s music to serve the role. At the end of the first act,  his duet with Mephistopheles was exciting, as Faust is finding new meaning in the fulfillment of the devil’s promise of revivified youth (“Ã moi les plaisirs”). This scene gave the Lyric audience a fine sense of the young tenor’s style, which was borne out in the third act’s love scene and, ultimately in the finale ensemble “Alerte! Alerte!” Beczala’s tone is always focused and round, with a consistent sound through every register. He was nicely resonant in the solo numbers and also easily distinguishable in the ensembles, easily matching René Pape’s burnished basso cantante voice in the first-act duet, as well as in other scenes which involve the two characters.

Similarly, Pape gave a vivid sense of Mephistopheles. The libretto requires this role to involve some stage magic, and Pape performed it with a nice self-awareness that prevented the tricks from seeming arch. This self-assured approach to Mephistopheles was a perfect foil for the human characters as they respond to the embodiment of the devil in various way. The second act offers some well-known challenges, with the brilliant “Calf of Gold” aria (“Le veau d’or”) at the center of an act in which Mephistopheles must always command the stage. Whenever Pape’s voice was difficult to hear, it was always in scenes that filled Lyric’s stage with people and so detracted from the resonance customarily found in the space. Throughout the whole work though, Pape gave a dynamic performance.

As Valentin, the American baritone Lucas Meachem imbued his sometimes one-dimensional role with a fine counterpoint to the compromised Faust. The intensity Meachem brought to the famous baritone aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux” was helped to set up the confrontation with Mephistopheles nicely and his phrasing gave real meaning to this familiar piece, which sounded fresh and new in his hands. Meachem’s convincing portrayal, when Valentin returns from war to discover his precious sister Marguerite’s shameful out-of-wedlock pregnancy was remarkable. Doomed to fall to Faust’s sword, this Valentin faced his diabolic opponents resiliently and the moment when Valentin tossed away the medallion Marguerite gave him (in the second act) portrayed his commitment to his religious faith most eloquently.

These performers created a uniformly strong cast of principals and were supported by well sung secondary roles. As Marthe, Jane Bunnell made her Lyric debut, and gave a deft characterization. As Siébel Katherine Lerner approached the trouser role with the earnestness of a fine Cherubino, a role she has also played. Lerner’s solo “Faites-lui mes aveux” at the opening of the third act was appropriately fresh and engaging.

The chorus was, as usual, a powerful presence throughout the opera, especially the second act, in which it must move between tableaux. Donald Nally deserves every recognition for his choral direction while Sir Andrew Davis conducted the production with his customary distinction. His reliably sensitive  leadership was outstanding here, where one of the familiar pieces of nineteenth-century repertoire received a fresh, exciting and distinctive reading.

James L Zychowicz

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