JONATHAN DARLINGTON DIRECTS AN INSPIRED FAUST TRUE TO ITS SPIRIT
GOUNOD, FAUST: David Pomeroy (Faust), Robert Pomakov (Mephistopheles), Simone Osborne (Marguerite), Peter Barrett (Valentin), Mireille Lebel (Siebel), Emilia Boteva (Marthe Schwerlein), Scott Rumble (Wagner), Vancouver Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Jonathan Darlington (conductor), Kinza Tyrrell (director), François Racine (director), Olivier Landreville (scenic designer), Dominique Guindon (costume designer), Gerald King (lighting designer), Queen Elizabeth Theatre, April 27, 2019.
It was an ambitious decision for Vancouver Opera to center their third annual festival on one of the most famous French operas in the repertoire, Gounod’s Faust. Despite its popularity, Faust has always been a problematic work for those who judge an opera by its faithfulness to a literary source. The libretto, written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré and based on a play by the latter, focuses on a few key scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Part One, mostly centering around Gretchen’s seduction, abandonment, and imprisonment. The plot is completely shorn of the German poet’s metaphysical and humanistic concerns, so that the original protagonist, whose dissatisfaction with the limits of earthly knowledge and ceaseless striving for perfection brings him salvation at the end of the poem, is transformed into a bored pedant who hankers to become a bon vivant in the opera. The operatic Faust’s profound superficiality is signaled by his exclamation at the end of Act I, ‘A moi les plaisirs!’
The most successful productions of Gounod’s Faust are those that embrace its hedonistic spirit and its Gallic indulgence in colorful instrumentation and catchy melodies rather than shying away from them. Attempts to introduce a note of profundity or seriousness, as in the Met’s ‘Atomic-Age Faust’ of 2011, usually misfire. Fortunately, the present production adopted a basically traditional approach, faithful to the spirit and time period of Barbier and Carré’s libretto. The staging and set design were mostly simple and unobtrusive, allowing the audience to focus on the singing and the music. There were some clever uses of spotlighting, such as when Mephistopheles summons the apparition of Marguerite in Act I, and Faust’s transition in the same act from doddering scholar to young man about town was superbly handled. The real star of the show, however, was Maestro Jonathan Darlington, who elicited a sensitive, alert and disciplined reading of the score from the Vancouver Opera Orchestra and provided the singers with unflagging support. Indeed, much of the color and rhythmic energy of this performance emanated from the orchestra pit.
Tenor David Pomeroy’s wide range of expression, heard to such good effect in last year’s Peter Grimes, gave a compelling portrait of Gounod’s antihero. From the existential despair of ‘Rien . . . en vain j’interroge’ to the tenderness of ‘Salut, demeure chaste et pure,’ Pomeroy appeared completely absorbed in Faust’s turbulent and rapidly-changing psychological states. His French enunciation may not have been immaculate, but his sense of vocal line and sensitive control of dynamic nuance made for a most enjoyable performance. Robert Pomakov brought a formidable stage presence and stentorian bass voice to the role of Mephistopheles. At the same time, his embodiment of the role was not as overtly diabolical and sinister as some classic interpreters, such as Chaliapin and Christoff; in fact, with his aristocratic bearing and respectable attire, he turned out to be a rather charming and likeable devil. It is easy to see how Faust could have fallen under his spell so quickly. Pomakov’s delivery of ‘Le veau d’or’ was characterized by great rhythmic verve and excitement, and his famous serenade ‘Vous qui faites l’endormie’ had the right combination of seductiveness and sarcasm. It is unfortunate that the stage was cluttered with supernumeraries and superfluous action in the latter aria, possibly distracting from this thrilling display of vocal and dramatic skill.
In the role of Marguerite, soprano Simone Osborne was most successful in conveying the character’s innocence and fragility. Her first aria in Act III, ‘Il était un roi de Thulé,’ had just the degree of understatement and demureness to suggest the vulnerability of first love. The celebrated jewel song ‘Ah, je ris de me voir si belle’ was appropriately playful and extroverted, thanks in part to the scintillating playing of the orchestra. Osborne’s beauty of tone was a great asset to this role, especially in the extended love duet at the end of Act III, and her French was very good throughout, though in the concluding prison scene of Act V one may have wished for a more expansive vocal resonance and a weightier dramatic presence. Baritone Peter Barrett’s delivery of Valentin’s aria ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ was one of the emotional and lyrical highpoints of the performance, thanks to his smooth legato and effortless command of his upper register. His malediction of Marguerite in Act IV was not as acerbic as in some interpretations, suggesting a degree of lingering affection for his fallen sister that made this scene touching rather than chilling.
There was plenty to admire in the secondary roles of Siebel, Marthe Schwerlein, and Wagner. Mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel had the most convincing French enunciation of the cast. Her singing in the role of Siebel was consistently fine, but the physicality of the role seemed to be a challenge for her: she was not altogether persuasive as an adolescent boy, which may be surprising for those who remember her delightful, scene-stealing Cherubino from two seasons ago. Emilia Boteva provided some welcome comic relief as Marguerite’s guardian Marthe. Her chemistry with Pomakov’s Mephistopheles was electrifying, and their scenes together were a veritable masterclass in deadpan delivery and dry wit. Finally, the minor role of Valentin’s fellow soldier Wagner was well served by tenor Scott Rumble, his energetic delivery and instinct for comedic timing being put to good use during his brief appearance in the Act II drinking scene.
The scenic design for this production largely consisted of a series of tall revolving bookshelves that initially served as the library of Faust’s study in Act I. Over the course of the opera these vertical pillars could be reconfigured to serve as the city gates in Act II, or the corner facades of houses in the Act IV street scene, or the walls of Marguerite’s prison in Act V. The simplicity and versatility of the set was certainly admirable, but after three hours of staring at the same bookshelves I started yearning for something more eye-catching. Would not a splash of color during the waltz scene of Act II, or a patch of something vegetative-looking in the garden scene of Act III been a welcome diversion? There are a few scenes in Faust where a certain austerity is not out of place, but one wants to avoid a feeling of unrelieved drabness.
Vancouver Opera’s production of Faust was absolutely commendable for eschewing any attempt to update or politicize the story and, under Maestro Darlington’s direction, it secured a dramatic cohesion and radiance over the whole. This was the type of singing and orchestral playing that allowed Gounod’s irresistible melodies to flourish, and brought both the plot and the characters vividly to life.
© Nicolas Krusek 2019