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Beczala, Pape and others: the triumph of Faust

Claudio Vellutini
martes, 17 de noviembre de 2009
Chicago, sábado, 17 de octubre de 2009. Civic Opera. Charles Gounod. Faust. Frank Corsaro, director. Robert Perdziola, set and costume designer. Christine Binder, lighting designer. Piotr Beczala (Faust), René Pape (Méphistophélès), Ana María Martínez (Marguérite), Lucas Maecham (Valentin), Corey Crider (Wagner), Jane Bunnell (Martha). Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus. Donald Nally, chorus master. Sir Andrew Davis, conductor.
0,0002129 According to Goethe, Mozart was the only composer who could have appropriately set to music his Faust. One wonders what he might have thought of Gounod’s opera, today the most popular work based on Goethe’s drama. The source of his libretto, Michel Carré’s Faust et Marguerite (1850), a stage adaptation of the first part of Goethe’s text, had been already proposed to Giacomo Meyerbeer as a possible operatic subject. But Meyerbeer, a German native and well acquainted with the original Faust, declined to work on Carré’s trivialization of one of the masterpieces of German literature. Carré’s pièce was turned into a libretto by Jules Barbier, one of the most experienced Parisian librettists of the time, and Gounod’s Faust gained immediate success. Despite its popularity, the score was frequently criticized for turning Goethe’s profound drama into stereotyped sets of operatic conventions.

One may perhaps agree that Gounod’s Faust is not the most innovative opera of its time; nonetheless, it works well on stage, as the recent revival at the Lyric Opera of Chicago has confirmed. Frank Corsaro’s traditional production stresses the ghostly atmosphere of the plot by employing fix architectonic Gothic structures (designer by Robert Perdziola), which are transformed into the specific setting of each scene by adding few stage elements (veils, bushes, movable stage props). Corsaro does not subvert the libretto in order to provide it with interpretative layers that would compensate it for the loss of conceptual depth. Nonetheless, combining this traditional visual approach to opera with careful attention to the acting results in a production which gives a compelling rendition of the story. In addition, Corsaro’s direction exploits some moments to create original scenic solutions: in the second act, for instance, Méphistophélès sings his Golden Calf song filling his glass not with wine, but with the blood spilling from a statue of Saint Sebastian. In the Church scene, Marguérite is haunted by Méphistophélès’s voice, as the libretto and the score prescribe, but his voice is embodied by a priest who is preaching in the church and threatening the sinful girl. The friction between Marguérite’s contrition and the priest’s words effectively dramatizes her growing sense of guilt which leads her to insanity and, finally, to infanticide. This idea also solves one of the contradictions of the plot: indeed, how could Méphistophélès be present in a Church, if in the previous scene he feared the sign of the Cross? The scenic substitution of Méphistophélès with a priest (of course interpreted by the same singer) renders the plot more straightforward and creates a very powerful dramatic moment.



Ana María Martínez, René Pape, Piotr Beczala
© 2009 by Dan Rest


All the singers proved to be credible actors as well as fine musicians. The cast was dominated by the two principle male roles: Piotr Beczala as Faust and René Pape as Méphistophélès. The production marked Beczala’s debut on the stage of the Lyric and Pape’s return to Chicago after his Rocco in Beethoven’s Fidelio in 2004-05 season. Both singers represented the best possible choice for their roles: Pape’s rich, colorful timbre and subtle musicianship outlined a mellifluous yet menacing devil. Beczala was a revelation for the audience of the Lyric, and at the moment I cannot imagine anyone more suited to sing the protagonist of Gounod’s opera. His creamy, lyric voice seemed to me ideal to portray the vital energy of the character, and yet, in the first scene, he managed to work with his vocal colors to represent properly the old, hopeless scientist. His highlights, though, were in his radiant rendition of the third-act aria (where Beczala reached a stunning top high-C), and the tender love duet at the end of the same act. Alongside them, Lucas Meachem scored a remarkable success with his execution of Valentin’s aria ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’.

Among the ladies, Ana María Martínez portrayed a fresh Marguérite. In her only phrase in the second act, she perhaps lacked the needed naiveté that is supposed to convey the innocence of the character, but from the third act to the end of the opera there was not a single moment were she was not remarkable. Not only was her singing always flawless and intense, but she even managed to make of the coloratura passages of the jewel-aria an expressive tool that added depth to the character, instead of just a moment to merely display her vocal skills. Mezzo soprano Katherine Lerner, a second-year member of the Ryan Opera Center program, delightfully portrayed the role of Siébel, and the experienced Jane Bunnell emphasized convincingly the comic nature of the role of Marthe without trivializing it.



Piotr Beczala y René Pape
© 2009 by Dan Rest

Sir Andrew Davis conducted the opera with care, enthusiasm, energy, and no lack of tension at all despite the considerable length of the opera. Under his baton, the Orchestra of the Lyric Opera provided the wide range of colors the score needs to differentiate its various scenes. Davis managed to find an ideal balance of the mystery of the first act, the festive brilliance of the second one, the romanticism of the third and afterwards the progressive sense of tragedy that reached its peak in the final scene. We will never know whether Goethe may have appreciated Gounod’s opera or not, but Gounod would probably have enjoyed this performance of his masterpiece.
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