The devil's in the details
Minnesota Opera's new "Faust" wins ovations.
By Mary Abbe, Star Tribune
What: By Charles Gounod. Directed by Doug Varone for Minnesota Opera. Conducted by Jean-Yves Ossonce.
When: 7:30 p.m. today, Thu. and Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Ordway Center, 5th and Washington Sts., St. Paul.
Tickets: $20-$150. 612-333-6669 or www. mnopera.org.
When it comes to "Faust," Charles-François Gounod's 1859 romantic masterpiece, the Germans have it right. Their opera houses dub this French classic "Margarete," after the lovely heroine whose fate is its crux, reserving the title "Faust" for Goethe's earlier treatment of the tragic bargain between the doctor and the devil.
So could the Minnesota Opera, whose masterful new "Faust" opened Saturday at Ordway Center. As directed and choreographed by New York dancer Doug Varone, it is an unusual production driven as much by the expressive dancing of his eight-member troupe as by the harmonious talents and persuasive acting of the vocal ensemble.
The aging and despondent Faust, sung with virile intensity by tenor Paul Groves, sets the plot spinning by accepting the devil's promise that he can have what he most wants -- youth, ecstasy and the virginal Marguerite -- in exchange for a mere trifle, his soul. But it is gentle Marguerite, sung with sweet lyricism and dramatic power by Judith Howarth, on which everything focuses.
Howarth is particularly fetching in the beautiful third act aria, "Air des Bijoux," in which she trills over a Pandora's box of jewels left by Méphistophélès to tempt her into falling for Faust. It works, of course, and soon she and Faust are singing a shimmering love duet, the exquisite "O nuit d'amour," in the moonlight.
Varone uses a dancer, Natalie Desch, to underscore Marguerite's centrality and symbolically mirror her happiness and inner torment. During the overture to Act 1, the white-clad dancer tosses in somnambulant distress, struggling like a puppet to free herself from forces beyond her control. Throughout the production, Desch's periodic appearances amplify the heroine's dreams and doubts, faith and guilt, virtue and seduction, death and redemption.
Playing Méphistophélès as an urbane, top-hatted dandy, Kyle Ketelsen brings cynical insouciance to his role. Baritone Lucas Meachem is suitably robust as Marguerite's brother, Valentin. Nicole Percifield is a sprightly presence in the pants role of Siébel, the boy with a "man's heart" who comforts Marguerite after she bears Faust's illegitimate child.
Andromache Chalfant's cubistic set, inspired by the early 20th-century painting of Kurt Schwitters, provides a flexible backdrop, alternatively suggesting a craggy mountain valley, a village square, a church grotto or the underworld. The white box in which Marguerite is imprisoned in Act Five is an especially effective counterpoint to her spiritual desolation as she awaits execution. Jane Cox's dramatic lighting is brilliant throughout but especially so in the grotto scenes, where she washes the walls with blood red and then pierces the gloom with shafts of heavenly brilliance.