The Atlanta Opera’s take on Gounod’s Faust was warmly received on its opening presentation on March 8, and with good reason: Gounod’s popular masterpiece can be nothing other than a surefire success when the intentions of the composer are honored. Though the evening was not free of the inevitable glitches that keep this art form interesting, the southern company’s effort managed to carry off a spectacle for both the eyes and the ears.
Visually, the production was a delight. Designed originally for the Houston Grand Opera, this Faust profited handsomely from the work of Stage Designer Earl Staley, who remained close to a traditional aesthetic and did not seek foreign elements to create cheap effects. With the help of the Marie Barrett’s inspired lighting design, Staley’s colorful, naturalistic sets made for a chillingly stark contrast when pitted against the tableaus of pitch-black exuberance. The unfortunate decision to keep the entirety of the opera’s first act clouded by the presence of a painted scrim could have used the veto of Stage Director Louisa Muller, though we suspect she had her hands full assisting the awkward comings and goings of her leading tenor (more on this below). The opening sequence was surely veiled in order to set up a vivid contrast at the arrival of the bright and colorful Kermesse scene in act two, but instead created an unintended emotional and aural disconnect between the audience and two of the opera’s main principals for the first twenty minutes of the action. Once this initial interpretive blunder came to pass, the production proved an asset to the opera’s success. The performance also offered the talents of a young and attractive cast, all making their Atlanta Opera debuts in these performances of Faust with the exception of Ms. Dunleavy and Ms. Redmon, and they were held together by the baton of Arthur Fagen. The maestro did a fine job propelling the long evening forward, though inconsistent tempi were noted in more than one occasion.
At the center of this production was the Faust of tenor Noah Stewart, a much-publicized young singer making a name for himself as a crossover artist. As concerns the industry side of music making, he has a lot going for him. He is young, handsome, and has the vocal resources to warrant some of the attention he has received from media outlets. His tenor is big, robust, and curiously dark in the middle register. The ascend to the top (a must for the tenor gig) betrayed a completely different vocal placement and a tightness in the method used to achieve it, at worst taking on a coarse nature. His experience on the operatic stage is limited, and his rookie status was betrayed by the lack of impact created by his otherwise considerable efforts. Faust is no walk in the park, he is a cultured yet tormented man who condemns his old soul in order to feel the thrill of mortal pleasures one more time. Gounod ran the gamut of his musical language to lather the part with an embarrassment of opportunities for expressive display. The part calls for a great artist, and though Mr. Stewart did manage to “sing all the notes”, he came quite short of realizing the part to its full potential.
The opera’s opening monologue, complex and full of pitfalls, got the better of him. Here, the tenor’s muscular delivery proved occasionally satisfying when expressing despair or outrage, but the strained top register and a sense of general discomfort with the contrasting emotions found him defaulting to the task of accomplishing the bare demands of the score. Naturally, this left little to the business of expressive singing. These limitations hampered the remainder of his performance, though his participation in the opera’s key third act found him better aligned with the French style. He achieved significant suavity during the famous “Salut demeure chaste pure”, held back by a pinched climatic high C arrived at through considerable distress. For Faust’ long duets with Marguerite, Mr. Stewart made great efforts to render his singing more intimate, and alleviated his boorish tendencies through the use of a respectable voix mixte and soft singing. While these indicated the young artist’s noble’s intentions, he would do well to aptly blend these devices into his singing to a greater degree, as they sometimes registered to the ear as interpolations.
His interpretation was further challenged by his jittery stage deportment, for despite his dashing good looks, Mr. Stewart’s acting chops left much to be desired. No where was this more apparent than in the opera’s final scene, where his perfunctory stage presence was pitted against the totality of Mary Dunleavy’s mad Marguerite. Mr. Stewart received an enthusiastic ovation during his final curtain calls, and he can look forward to even greater fanfare as the state of his art improves. The voice itself has very exciting qualities, and could serve better in a less demanding role. Ultimately, we give Mr. Stewart a pass on the grounds that he lacks experience on the operatic stage. With greater exposure and an improved technique, his instrument may yet develop him into an artist of note.
Fresh from her successful Atlanta Opera debut as Violetta in last season’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata, Mary Dunleavy returned to the Cobb Energy Center’s stage as a radiant Marguerite. But where some of the Italian master’s music suffered slightly through her naturally bright soprano, in Faust, her technical accomplishments and artistic sensibilities where heard to greater advantage. As noted then, hers is a full lyric soprano of remarkable steadiness and malleable texture, which she wields by way of a solid technique. She also knows how to color her declamation to create a vivid theatrical effect. Her key entrance during the Kermesse scene perfectly depicted the unassuming, simple nature of the young Marguerite through the use of a girlish, gleaming tone. This was but the beginnings of a fine character study through sheer vocal means. Her scena in act three was nuanced and artfully phrased. She seamlessly transitioned from the habitual yet inward manner employed for the ballad of the Roi du Thule to the brilliant and coquettish tone applied to the air des bijoux. The intricate cabaletta did betray a slight hesitancy during the more ornate passages, but her singing was generally quite accomplished.
Dunleavy was also a fine actress, and her meeting with Faust revealed an alert and sensitive romantic heroine. She proved equally convincing in passages of melancholic pathos (her “C’est quand nos âmes en sont pleines/Que la mort nous les prend ainsi” was particularly touching), and despite a general lack of chemistry with Mr. Stewart, she generated a remarkable degree of musical synergy with her leading tenor during the long duet that essentially crowns the final portion of this act. Yet her finest moments were to come during the last scenes of the opera, confirming a fleeting suspicion that at its best, her declamation fully seduced the ear and reduced the contributions of her colleagues and the orchestra to artful accompaniment. During the scene in the cathedral, her silvery soprano revealed its full lyric potential as it soared over the orchestra in defiance to Mephistopheles taunting. This encounter with Satan essentially served as preparation for the opera’s concluding tableau at the prison, where Ms. Dunleavy’s confirmed her reputation as a fine tragedienne. Here, the lucid visions of her clouded mind took center stage, the ramblings of this wretched woman who is soon to leave this earth conjuring the few moments of true happiness inspired by a cruel satanic joke. It was both effective and devastating. She soared over the trio with remarkable conviction, and even managed to carry out the opera’s difficult denouement. Through it all, Ms. Dunleavy consistently lived in the bubble where sound technique lays the foundation for artistic expression. She knows what she wants to express and has the technical know-how to make her point. She was the jewel of the production and helped elevate a fine regional effort into a world-class affair.
In the role of Mephistofeles, bass Alexander Vinogradov unleashed a booming voice fresh in tone and sonorous throughout its range. His singing was cleverly measured, and his part was consistently well sung. Still, in the hands of the young Russian artist, the titanic qualities of this iconic character were left partially unfulfilled. His devil leaned towards debonair vanity and cynicism, but consistently lacked the overwhelming vocal and dramatic darkness required to make this penny shine. For instance, the difficult “Le veau d’or” was well sung, but the color of the timbre attained a lyric transparency as he ascended to the top of his range; and while the rendition was certainly loud enough, it was robbed of its desired creepy effect. At other instances, his declamation and expressive intent seemed aimed specifically at the audience lucky enough to be sitting closer to him, giving the strange effect to the rest present that he was singing to himself. Then there would come a phrase where the voice would run through the auditorium, proof that he could indeed open up the voice for all to hear, but seemed to occasionally choose otherwise. This proclivity hallmarked the entirety of his role.
His stage impersonation proved opposite to Mr. Stewart’s, and he acted his devil in a very reserved manner, at times he even registering slightly shy. His hand gestures were small, his eyebrow only moderately raised, his evil grin would not go past the smirk stage. When the stars aligned he could create a genuine effect, as seen in the cathedral scene where Mephistofeles hones in on his real target, the hapless Marguerite. Accompanied by the organ, his voice came forth remarkably as an instrument of demonic damnation. One truly doubted for an instant or two that Ms. Dunleavy would be able to escape his clutches. And thus it was unfortunate and somewhat frustrating that Mr. Vinogradov’s interpretation kept this brand of treatment to such minimum. We hope he will let it rip, like we all suspect he can, for the remainder of the run.
These performances greatly benefited from the participation of the fine Valentine of Edward Parks, whose high baritone voice handsomely filled the strains of his keynote aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux”. He is a tall man with a striking, masculine aura, which perhaps did not advertise well his high baritone voice. His initial phrases even registered as disappointing, but his handling of the aria’s tessitura and panoramic crescendo was impressive. There was also a general ease to his singing, and even at its loudest application, his baritone retained a gossamer texture. He was also a convincing actor, and sold his unrealistic death scene sibling cursing as best as one could. Further reinforcement came from the ideal Siebel of mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, whose smooth lyric voice poured forth with well-oiled facility during her big number “Faites-lui mes aveux”. Her declamation was consistently well produced and alert. She also brought an ideal blend of proclivities to her assignment: tall, trim, and projective of a natural boyish charm across the footlights. She is likely to encounter more of these trouser roles in the foreseeable future. The small but important role of Wagner was handsomely sung by baritone Cory Neal Schantz, and veteran mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon (whom we remember as an impressive Adalgisa back in 1994!) was a delightful Marthe. The members of the Atlanta Opera Chorus added yet another excellent performance to their glowing resume, and remain the pride of Chorus Master Walter Huff.
You can still catch the last two more performances of the Atlanta Opera’s presentation of Gounod’s Faust, but we suggest that you act fast. For details, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org