St. Petersburg Opera opens its season with Charles Gounod's Faust. This opera used to be such a mainstay at The Metropolitan Opera that the company was nicknamed Faustspielhaus, a joke on Richard Wagner's festspielhaus at Bayreuth. Now it seems to have fallen out of favor, and productions are not that common. This area has been blessed with a couple of outings by Sarasota Opera, in 1991 and 1998, and more recently by Tampa Opera in 2009, but that is still eight years ago. I cannot remember if I have ever seen it before, but this production seems to be a pretty good place to start.
To my ears, the MVP of the afternoon is Stéphanie Lessard as Marguerite. She is blessed with a lovely lyric soprano with a sparkling top. I learned this opera from a recording featuring one of the super-star coloratura sopranos, and now that I have heard a different voice type in the part, I realize how wrong that sound is for this part. Ms. Lessard is blessed with a lovely face and nice stage presence, fine assets for this part. She is partnered by Samuel Hall as Faust. Ok, he looks a little ridiculous as the old Faust in act one, scene one, but that would be hard to bring off except by companies with big dollar resources. After the transformation, he has a handsome face, nice eyes, and a bright tenor with enough flexibility for this difficult part. The only thing lacking is that subtle élan at the top that makes a world of difference singing French repertoire. If he had it, I suspect he would be soon be in demand at the more prestigious American opera companies. His acting is not necessarily his strong suit, but he does a really nice job in act four as the drunken lover.
Branch Fields as Méphistophélès has a really nice sinewy stage presence and a good voice, although I would prefer a little more bass heft (he is a baritone) in the part. His Golden Calf (Le veau d'or) aria in act two is a highlight and got a great response from the audience. César Méndez-Silvagnoli delivers a really nice Valentine with possibly the best acting chops on the stage. Nian Wang plays Siébel, Faust's rival for Marguerite's attention, and Sahoko Sato Timpone plays older neighbor Martha, excellent in the garden scene quartet. Phillip Bullock has a small solo role as Wagner, and Daniel Johnson and Alessandra Ramnarine are dancing Demons.
Staging is not St. Petersburg Opera's strongest asset. The theater they use has limited stage space and no orchestra pit. The orchestra has to be seated at the rear of the stage with a set to sort of cover them, leaving a limited playing area. A multi-level set design by Warren K. Sodt is more cumbersome than I think ideal, making director Karl W. Hesser's job even more difficult. Still, several of the tableaux are excellent, act four, scene two's duel, for example, and much of the act three garden scene. He moves his very large chorus on and off stage with reasonable grace, all things considered.
Costumes by Glenn A. Breed are excellent for the chorus, even better for Méphistophélès and Marguerite, worthy for Faust and the lesser principals. Wig and makeup is by Maggie Caugill, lighting design by Keith Arsenault. Choreographer Andrea Wright offers a salvation dance in act five, as Marguerite escapes the doom offered by Faust and Méphistophélès.
Again and always, the glory of this and almost every St. Petersburg Opera performance I have attended is conductor Mark Sforzini, his orchestra and volunteer chorus. Maestro Sforzini leads a propulsive performance, a little short of the ideal elegance that makes me love the French opera repertoire so much. The orchestra contains a lot of names I recognize from past performances, but they are still a pickup unit; they don't regularly play together and if they do, not under Mark Sforzini. That makes it all the more remarkable how well they play for him. One highlight of this performance is the orchestral prelude to act one which really sets the somber darkness of Faust's mood. Also, the orchestra and our maestro really send the final trio soaring—hugely exciting.
What can I say about the chorus? They are 40 strong, all volunteers, and they sing with great vigor and musical accuracy. There are a number of members with quite good stage presence.
I love live opera, the chance to hear big, voluptuous voices and an orchestra without mechanical reproduction. There is a visceral excitement about it as long as the performance is reasonably good, and this one is much better than that.
St. Petersburg Opera presents Faust through October 24, 2017, at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N., St. Petersburg, FL. For more information see www.stpeteopera.org.
Faust: Samuel Hall
Méphistophélès: Branch Fields
Marguerite: Stéphanie Lessard
Valentin: César Méndez-Silvagnoli
Siébel: Nian Wang
Marthe Schwertlein: Sahoko Sato Timpone
Wagner: Phillip Bullock
Demons: Daniel Johnson and Alessandra Ramnarine