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Epic Opera in Nebraska

The Mastercraft Building at Millwork Commons
04/12/2019 -  & April 14, 2019
Charles Gounod: Faust
Sébastien Guèze (Faust), Samuel Schultz (Wagner), Elizabeth Pojanowski (Siébel), David Pittsinger (Méphistophélès), Craig Irvin (Valentin), Cecilia Violetta López (Marguerite), Emily Pulley (Marthe)
Opera Omaha Chorus, Sean Kelly (Chorus Master), The Omaha Symphony, Steven White (Conductor)
Lileana Blain-Cruz (Director), Adam Rigg (Set Designer), Kaye Voyce (Costume Designer), Yi Zhao (Lighting Designer)

Opera Omaha is committed to making opera relevant to today, even if a work was composed centuries ago. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz chose to make Faust a tech executive, Marguerite a bar maid, and left the devil left as is. That role seems universal and timeless. David Pittsinger took it on with gusto. He has a superb voice, catching every nuance in a phrase, camping it up with a wink, and holding us, as well as Faust, in his thrall throughout.

Sébastien Guèze as Faust has a bright edge to his voice. He makes the most of his lyric duets with the devil and is appealing in his duets with Marguerite. He adds a bright edge to his lovely lines. Blaine-Cruz has added spoken text often eliminated, and this dimension not only shows her talents as a theatrical director, but adds another dimension to this fabulous opera.

The difference between Méphistophélès notion of romance and Faust’s is clear from the start. When Méphistophélès meets the old man wishing to regain his youth, he knows just what to offer. Faust seems tame as a romancer, offering flowers when jewels will do a better job. In this production, Faust makes love offstage. Méphistophélès takes on Emily Pulley as the wild Marthe, a lady of ill repute, off stage too. They return in joyous dishabille. Marguerite has eloquently sung about her rapture, calling out to Faust, “Hurry back to me my beloved.” Faust rushes to her and she falls into his arms. Yet poor Marguerite is left to display the after effects of lovemaking as she parades the stage pregnant.

Adam Ring created a striking set, dramatically simple and spare, but enlivened in village squares. Scenes where the Kermesse Waltz is danced are animated and full of gaiety. Bathed in green at the start, neon lights appear over the desks where Faust works. Lighting by Yi Zhan is arresting. The use of neon as a theme for the upper world ties together many different settings. Spots single out arias and duets, and softer lights tell Marguerite’s story, subtly setting mood.

Steven White in the pit conducted the Omaha Symphony, who performed Gounod’s music to display its beauty and wit. Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust may surpass Gounod is musical color, but the emotional poetry of Gounod’s young Faust and Marguerite are mysterious and fascinate. The music is impeccably stylish and elegant, suggesting Mozart in his profound, chaste harmonies. The Opera Omaha Chorus rose to the many demands placed on it in bar scenes and in hell.

The red hell set was in striking contrast to scenes set up above ground. Upside down bodies on their way to hell hung in a semi circle above the red curtain entrance to the devil’s home. With arms splayed they looked destined for only a minor role in Hades. Gounod had first been inspired to write this scene in Capri, rolling a big stone down a precipitous slope. For him the rocks at night were weird and horrible. He conjured up Walpurgis Night of witches and pagans. Rigg has masterfully drawn the picture, to fill out the picture roused by the music. Gounod was a friend of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres who drew a stunning portrait of him. Ingres thought Gounod himself a good artist, and this may be why Gounod’s music inspires set designers like Mr. Rigg.

The opera becomes Marguerite’s as she retreats to church on her knees in prayer, and is redeemed by the knowledge that she has been loved, if left. Cecilia Violetta Lopez has a lovely soprano. Craig Irvin is her brother and defender Valentin. He has a big smooth voice, which fills the house. When he gets angry, the voice tightens and froths.

Gounod had been inspired by listening to Palestrina in the Sistine Chapel. As Marguerite kneels in the fourth act in a church to pray, “Lord, allow your humble servant, To come and kneel before you”, Gounod’s own religious journey is manifest. It is so moving that Méphistophélès feels that Marguerite must be struck down with terror. He calls in the spirits of evil.

Pittsinger as Méphistophélès prevails. He is seductive, calculating, manipulative and wicked. He captures each mood with aplomb. Of course, portraying evil is always the juiciest role.

Melodic invention, solemn religiosity, and vivid portraiture make this the most successful French opera in history. An English critic complained, “Faust, Faust, Faust, nothing but Faust. Faust on Saturday, Wednesday, and Thursday and on every night until further notice.” Why not? Opera Omaha makes the case for the opera in our times. This production was charming, and we are redeemed and warmed at the end.

Susan Hall



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