'Faust' is memorable opener for Washington Opera

November 07, 1994|By David Donovan | David Donovan,Special to The Sun

The Washington Opera opened its 1994-95 season Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House with a generally very pleasurable production of Gounod's "Faust."

This opera is full of justifiably popular and familiar arias and choruses. This production may not be on the level of the finest French productions, but it is well worth experiencing on its own merits.

The main reason to see this particular production is the diabolically sinister portrayal of Mephistopheles by Jeffrey Wells. He is imposing both vocally and physically. His Mephistopheles is seductive, devilishly playful and terrifying.

His voice is rich and penetrating, and never seemed strained. He was 100 percent committed to his character and commanded the stage even when he was singing in the wings. A Mephistopheles of this caliber is rare and should be cherished.

The other two principal roles were not up to his level. Sheryl Woods was generally the proper angelic Marguerite. From time to time, her top register was forced and not as beautiful as required by the sublime music.

The other big role, of Faust, was played by Jianyi Zhang. It was good, but Faust was not a truly moving character. His projection was often lacking, and the singing tended to be wooden and mechanical instead of lyrical and free.

The other supporting characters were generally superb. Victory Ledbetter was the perfect Valentin. He was able to match the vocal power of Mephistopheles and had beauty of tone throughout his vocal range.

Baltimore-born Julia Ann Wolf was a captivating and charming Siebel. She adeptly played the trouser role of a teen-ager smitten by Marguerite. Her aria in Act Three was vocally beautiful and moving. It is evident that she can do much more than just trouser roles, and Baltimore listeners can look forward to hearing her with the Choral Arts Society later this season in the performance of the Bach B Minor Mass.

The orchestra and chorus were excellent, although the chorus was taxed by doing the big crowd scenes in the first and third acts. The famous waltz did seem flat, with singers stomping rather than dancers leaping, but fortunately the orchestra played with lilt and proper French sparkle. Conductor Richard Bradshaw drew a rich, detailed performance from his players and was always an ideal partner to the stage performers.

This performance is a three-act version, and the famous Walpurgisnacht ballet is not included. This makes the entire opera, with intermissions, about three hours long. The ballet was added 10 years after the premiere in 1859 and contributes nothing dramatically, but does deprive one of more of Gounod's beautiful score.

The sets and backdrops were very effective. The rear projections of medieval images heightened the drama, and the smoke and sparks of Mephistopheles' entrance were the kind of jolt that one should receive when the devil appears.

This is a very fine "Faust" and should not be missed. The medieval costumes by Walter Mahoney were varied and stylish, and the lighting by Joan Sullivan kept the drama from being one-dimensional. Also, the Kennedy Center Opera House is still the best venue in the complex. The French was superb and the English surtitles were informative but not obtrusive.

"Faust" will also be performed Nov. 10, 13, 15, 18, 21 and 26.

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