`Faust' needs a little refining

Review: Impressive musical performance overcomes visual foibles in Baltimore Opera Company production.

March 17, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A world that sees too many human demons may not find much to fear in the Mephistopheles conjured up by Gounod's romantic opera, "Faust." The Baltimore Opera Company's provocative, vibrantly sung, ultimately frustrating new production makes a considered effort to underline the wickedness of this baritonal Beelzebub.

There's no shortage of fire and brimstone. By the last scene, not just the stage but the whole interior of the Lyric Opera House is bathed in flames (some real, most simulated). This intensification of the potent evil in "Faust" ought to generate one helluva night at the opera. But director, costume designer and all-around concept-generator John Lehmeyer has not quite delivered on his promising re-thinking of the plot, here updated from a traditional medieval setting to Germany in World War I.

On Thursday evening, lots of still and moving images projected on screens fleshed out Tom Macie's often strikingly streamlined scenic design, keeping the eye constantly engaged. (The projections were designed by Julie Macie and directed by lighting designer Benjamin Pearcy.) For every inspired image, though, there were several others that fall flat or provoke disbelief and, judging by some folks sitting near me, stifled laughter.

Given the generally solid condition of the musical side of the venture, Lehmeyer's curious mixture of dramatically supportive visuals and downright astounding kitsch becomes all the more regrettable. (I saw the finale, but I still don't believe it) A truly riveting theatrical experience was clearly well within reach. Somehow, things just got out of control.

Lehmeyer's application of video suggests a kid with a new toy, unable to quit fiddling with dials and buttons. You might think he'd be content hitting the audience with staggering photos and newsreels of The Great War, which do indeed make an impact, especially early in the performance. But Lehmeyer keeps muddying the picture by tossing in depictions of Satan, which might make more sense in a conventional staging.

Worse, there are several occasions when action taking place on stage by the singers is given unnecessary, hokey reinforcement by giant-sized, on-screen animation. Silliness, not incisiveness, is too often the result.

At his best, Lehmeyer puts a fresh spin on the old, ever-relevant observation that war is hell, starting during the orchestral prelude when the first haunting shots of corpses in the trenches appear. But he doesn't really deepen the allusion. Mephistopheles, here posing as a German fighter pilot, might well have claimed the soul of Faust by sending him to the fields of Flanders; instead, we get a cartoon version of damnation.

And although Lehmeyer has stated that his production treats the influenza epidemic around World War I as counterpart to the medieval plague in the original story of "Faust," I couldn't find it. Even when given an opportunity to make something visual out of that similarity - as Marguerite describes the death of her sister - we get nothing but trite color slides of rose bushes as backdrop to picturesque sets that could have been part of any old "Faust" production.

Such quaintness undermines the director's stated goals. It's the same in the scene at the fair, when the war suddenly seems much too far away, and the crowd includes too many draft-age men who would have been in uniform.

Other discrepancies crop up, cutting into the intended circa 1915 atmosphere - Marguerite's floor-length dresses, for example (hadn't hem-lines started to inch up by then?) Such nitpicking is invited by a production that calls so much attention to itself and that announces its aspirations from the moment the house lights dim.

There was much less to quibble about when it came to the music.

As Faust, Fernando de la Mora's sensitivity to phrasing and conscientious effort to produce tonal beauty (including a deliciously subtle climax to "Salut! demeure") paid off handsomely.

Leontina Vaduva triumphed as Marguerite, filling the theater with her ripe, glowing, superbly controlled soprano. Her voice danced trough the "Jewel Song" and caressed the preceding ballad affectingly. Her incisive singing was complemented by a winning characterization. The chance to hear this major artist makes the whole production worthwhile.

Stephen West did not have all the thunderous tones for Mephistopheles, especially at the top end of the voice, but his energetic delivery served him well. He was an adept actor except in the church scene, when Lehmeyer required him to writhe in agony like a vaudeville villain in a snare. Like many a baritone, Zeljco Lucic didn't make Valentin much more than a mannequin with a grand aria to sing, but he sang it in firm, ringing tone and eloquent style.

As Siebel, Nicole Biondo looked about as convincing a male adolescent as Barbra Streisand did in "Yentl," and the mezzo had a little trouble controlling intonation. Still, she was an engaging presence, as were Catherine Cook (Marthe) and Cory Neal Schantz (Wagner). The chorus offered considerable richness and expressive.

David Gimenez conducted with equal portions of momentum and elegance, getting a vivid response from the orchestra -mishaps in the brass notwithstanding.

In the end, this production scores its only direct hits on the musical front. As an attempt to redefine and re-focus "Faust," the valiant effort stumbles a little too often while crossing the battlefield, creating something akin to visual shell-shock.

Opera

What: Baltimore Opera Company's production of Gounod's "Faust"

When: 8:15 tonight and Friday; 3 p.m. tomorrow and March 25; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets: $29 to $120

Call: 410-727-6000

Web site: www.baltimoreopera.com

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