FAUST REVIEW – The Devil made him do it!

March 1, 2016 No Comments

Special to Town Times by Larry Kellum

To paraphrase the humorous expression from the 1970’s, “the devil made me do it”, Satan, Lucifer – or Mephistopheles as he is known in Charles Gounod’s grand French opera “Faust” – is the demon responsible for the pathetic title hero’s lustful and destructive behavior. On Feb. 19, the CT Lyric Opera mounted its second production of its 2015-16 season when the composer’s masterpiece premiered at New Britain’s Trinity-on-Main. Based on the German poet/novelist Johann W. von Goethe’s drama, the famous opera debuted in Paris in 1859, and was also the very first opera ever performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1883. The classic story of the unhappy philosopher who sells his soul to the Devil for another chance at youth and love is so popular that it also serves as the theme for two other successful operas — the Italian “Mefistofele” by Boito and another French piece “Le Damnation de Faust” by Berlioz. This production will culminate at the MHS Performing Arts Center in Middletown on April 3, and will also appear in Hartford (Infinity Hall, March 6) and New London (Palmer Auditorium, March 18). All performances are conducted by maestro Adrian Sylveen of the CT Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, which, incidentally, enjoyed one of its best nights in the theater in recent times with a vibrant reading of this monumental score. The only disappointment to this old traditionalist critic is that the opera was updated to modern times and modern American dress. The least said about this current blasphemous trend in opera the better.

Like any good Liu in “Turandot” or Azucena in “Trovatore”, a great Mephistopheles will usually steal the show in any “Faust”. Towering at 6’7” and not the least bit creepy looking, Andrew Potter’s tour de force performance would stand tall on any of the biggest and best operatic stages in the world today. His huge, oily, black, genuine bass shook the rafters, and his sinister murder of Marguerite’s illegitimate baby (nice touch!) sent shivers down one’s spine. Any celebrity bass from this role’s glorious history would be so proud of him and his continuing in the grand manner they established! Resident house tenor Daniel Juarez seems to do his very best work for the CLO in French repertory — a blazing 2012 Don Jose here, concert arias from “Le Cid” — and his first Faust followed suit. His instrument is by nature built for heavier and darker roles (any takers for Samson?), but spintos like Corelli and Domingo have scaled their voices down for this part. So did Juarez, who sang a Faust of both great refinement and passion, and his top notes flowed freely and effortlessly.

As any soprano who has done it will testify, Marguerite is probably the most deceptive role ever written — such a big-girl sing from such a youthful character. Many divas have referred to her as the “Butterfly of the French lyric soprano repertory”, for it is long, intense, the high notes are cannonballs, and like Puccini’s geisha, you are spending the last three minutes of a very long evening screaming your lungs out over gigantic orchestration. No soprano since the legendary Sutherland and Sills has been able to execute the long trills in the otherwise meaningless “Jewel Song”, and the very pretty Heather O’Connor is no exception. She also lacked the inherent sweetness and tonal warmth of a Freni or Fleming for such a sympathetic part. However, both her singing and acting were deeply moving in the Church Scene (the best moments of the performance), and amazingly, she bravely held her own in the soaring high tessitura of that thundering Final Trio up against the torrents of volume emanating from Potter, Juarez and the pit. Her already lengthy role was made even more difficult by the rare inclusion of the usually cut Spinning Wheel aria, which she sang commendably. She will grow into the role in future performances. The secondary characters were all adequately sung, and the second nice touch of the evening was the usage of female choristers in the stirring Soldier’s Chorus. After all, women are in the military also, and come home from war as well.

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