Sunday, June 17, 2018

New production of Faust was thought-provoking yet puzzling

Alfred Walker as Méphistophélès | Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera
Portland Opera presented a new interpretation of Gounod’s “Faust” with mixed success. Some aspects of the production, which received its West Coast premiere at Keller Auditorium on Friday, June 8, connected crystal-clearly while others were downright puzzling.

Co-commissioned by Chicago Lyric Opera, the production was designed by visual artist John Frame with sets and costumes by Victoria “Vita” Tzykun, and projections by David Adam Moore. Under the direction of Kevin Newbury, they placed the opening action in an artist’s studio, where the aged-Faust attempted to make models for the movie industry. Nearby was a moveable sculpture, suggesting a man looking through a telescope made of film canisters, which could point upwards or downwards, depending on the direction of Faust’s thoughts: heavenly or earthly.

When Faust called on the devil for one last chance to experience the pleasures of youth, Méphistophélès didn’t just appear through cloud of dry ice. Instead, projected imagery showed Méphistophélès being carved from a block of wood. That seemed to imply that Méphistophélès sprang from Faust’s imagination. By extension, then Marguerite, Valentin, and the other characters in the story were created by Faust as well. Perhaps that is why Faust’s character as a young man had a surreal, zombie-like quality. He couldn’t believe that he had become young again, that girls were interested in him, that Marguerite would fall in love with him, and that he would kill Valentin.

Méphistophélès was assisted by four goblins, who were on stage almost all the time, whether they were carrying a soldier, rolling a bed for Marguerite and Faust, lurking around Marguerite’s tiny home, or adjusting the telescope sculpture. Most remarkably, they skillfully entered and exited from an undersized opening that sort of looked like a large fireplace. Maybe it was a portal to Faust’s mind.

Another oddity of this version was that Marguerite was a cripple and had to hobble around with a crutch. When she sang the famous “Jewell Song,” she tossed the crutch to the side. But afterwards she had to return to using the crutch. Also, when the soldiers returned from war, they stumbled in, beaten up and blooded. That was a strong anti-war statement because they looked in complete contrast to the text, which emphasizes the glories of fighting for the fatherland.

The most shocking moment in the performance involved Méphistophélès and his goblins forcing a screaming Marguerite into an abortion, and followed it with Méphistophélès carrying the baby away. Another inspired moment came the final scene when Faust puts on gargoyle-like mask over his head and joins the goblins as they follow Méphistophélès off-stage.

Tzykun dressed Faust and Méphistophélès in colorful checked suits that seemed to be right out of the 1960s or 70s, and Marguerite wore a plain white dress that was more conservative. The chorus, however, wore costumes that were inexplicably right out of the Victorian era. Moore’s projection of blooming flowers (to represent the growing attraction between Faust and Margueritte) was the biggest splash across a mostly drab set. Everything was lit impressively by designer Duane Schuler.

With his powerful and lyric voice, Jonathan Boyd created a Faust that fit well with the demands of the production. Angel Blue’s lovely soprano was often too soft, and her singing of the “Jewell Song” glimmered just brightly enough to make everyone forget about the crutches. She saved the best for last, upping the volume to get over and above the rising orchestra.

Alfred Walker has one of the most melodious baritone voices in the nation, but his Méphistophélès needed a tad more sneer. At the beginning of the last act, Mattaliano came to the front of the stage and told the audience that Walker was suffering from a cold. The remarkable thing was that Walker then sang louder and better than he did in the first two acts.

Singing with great emotion and strength, Edward Parks made a memorable impression as Valenkin. Kate Farrar created a wonderfully impulsive and upright Siébel. Angela Niederloh got the laughs and endured them as well in the role of Marthe, and Shi Lin distinguished himself as Wagner.

George Manahan elicited strong playing from the orchestra, and the Portland Opera Chorus sang with conviction although they were often placed too far to the back of the stage.

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