Queen Elizabeth Theatre
04/22/2006 - April 25,27,29, and May 2, 2006
Charles Gounod: Faust
Dario Schmunk (Faust)
Peter Volpe (Méphistophélès)
Erin Wall (Marguerite)
Aaron St Clair Nicholson (Valentin)
Norine Burgess (Siébel)
Kevin Sean Pook (Wagner)
Marcia Swanston (Marthe Schwertlein)
The Vancouver Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)
The relevance of nineteenth-century opera in the twenty-first century is a question that is often explored but never definitively answered. That is, of course, because there is more than one valid answer, and in Vancouver Opera’s Faust, there is more than one answer in the same production.
Faust has been all the buzz in recent North American opera news since Tresa Waggoner, a former Colorado music teacher lost her job earlier this year for teaching about Faust through an educational video series called “Who’s Afraid of Opera?” OPERA America is honoring her advocacy of opera and integrity throughout her experience with her employers in their national convention next week.
Any current production of Faust would satisfy the curiosity of those following the controversy, but it is particularly poignant for Vancouver Opera to undertake this task. With a variety of programs for students of all ages, including a local version OPERA America’s Music! Words! Opera!, Vancouver Opera has proven a conscientious contributor to music education. Faust, like the other operas this season, is the potential crux of half those education programs.
But even if the incident in Colorado hadn’t occurred, the visual element of this production would have made a relevant statement with its abstract modernist set design. The opera opens with the image of an expanding box created first by horizontal and vertical curtains that draw back to reveal Faust in his study, and later by the study splitting to frame the remainder of the action within the opera. The stark black and white colors of the study with tortured equations scrawled on the walls powerfully illustrates Faust’s anguish and futility in his lifelong search for knowledge. As Nic Muni, stage director, suggests, the study-frame throughout the opera acts as a reminder of Faust’s influence on the events that follow his bargain with Méphistophélès. Through stark sets, exquisite lighting, and sparse symbolic usage of vivid color, Faust is given sharp dramatic focus, that complements rather than clashes with the appeal of lush nineteenth-century music, and I imagine admirers of contemporary art as much as admirers of nineteenth-century opera will be pleased by this production.
If there is a weak visual element in this production it is the choreography. Many of the characters spend a disproportionate amount of time sprawled on the ground or on their knees. In the first act, Faust seems so preoccupied in his groveling that he doesn’t even acknowledge Méphistophélès’ entrance (true, it’s scripted that Faust is not surprised, but he could at least turn his head in the devil’s direction). In the scene where Valentin repels Méphistophélès with a cross, he uses the crucifix his sister has given him instead of the remnants of his broken sword. Fine. But why does he needlessly keep Méphistophélès at his side by holding the devil’s hand to the emblem over his chest (while Méphistophélès writhes on his knees). There is also an odd scene where Faust is lying on a bench and Méphistophélès injects him with something that was presumably not part of their bargain. But it’s unclear why it’s done and with what result (the injection may correspond with Faust growing horns and Méphistophélès growing old rather suddenly, but there are signs of Faust’s physical transformation earlier and growing old hardly seems like something the devil would hope to induce).
Musically, the singers range from competent to truly compelling. Dario Schmunck has a lovely tone as Faust but struggles a bit with the very highest notes (the first sounded a bit driven and the second verged on cracking). As Méphistophélès, Peter Volpe is neither extraordinary nor particularly lacking. Erin Wall, as Marguerite, and Aaron St Clair Nicholson, as Valentin, elicited the strongest applause opening night, and with good reason. Wall sings Marguerite with a clear simplicity suitable to character’s innocence and with ease and command throughout her range. Aaron St Clair Nicholson is one of the best actors on stage and sings Valentin in a flawless rich baritone.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the orchestra with passion and subtlety and the orchestra responds in kind. They occasionally overpower the singing with their zeal, but as a whole, their dynamic interpretation contributes a powerful energy to the performance. Gordon Gerrard, organist, is particularly impressive.
The chorus, directed by Leslie Dala, also contributes a great deal. Their brief a capella section is breathtaking, and they end the opera superlatively with their song of redemption. When Marguerite chooses not to follow Faust, the visual references to Faust’s study, and therefore his influence, are removed, and in a sense all the characters and their actions released. But the opera ends with the choir’s song of salvation for all who choose it projected from the back of the theater, effectively enveloping the audience rather than releasing it from its influence. This timeless reminder of power in personal choice is the ultimate answer to Faust’s relevance in the twenty-first century and beyond.