Santa Fe Faust — Revisited

Often over a run of
performances, a production and the fit of singers into their roles will mature
into an organic whole that eclipses earlier performances. We saw this closing
night August 27 with Santa Fe Opera’s lavish production of the Gounod
masterwork, Faust. It was from the first a good show — at times more
‘show’ than opera — but by the close of its run of nine
performances, it was an artistic whole that proved a well-rationalized way of
presenting an 1859 operatic hit to a 2011 popular audience.

Admittedly, it is hard to accept Santa Fe’s staging of Act I that had
Faust still a grizzled old man when he was wheeled off stage at the end of his
transformation scene. Gounod, in both direction and music, makes it clear Faust
is to regain his youth, due to a deal with the devil and MÈphisto’s
magic, right on stage — the audience seeing him sing the second verse of
his duet with MÈphisto as a virile young man. Changing that through stage
direction proved pointless, a silly notion of English powerhouse theatrical
producer Stephen Lawless — but this talented world-class director did so
many other right things for Santa Fe’s presentation, it is hard to feel
anything but admiration for his work, and that of musical director FrÈdÈric
Chaslin, for between them, and with Santa Fe’s deep pockets, they
produced a memorable evening of music theatre worthy of its venerable

True, in many ways the production was re-set or changed, yet it caught the
19th Century spirit of Gounod’s masterpiece and made the most of it.
Tenor Bryan Hymel in the title role sang the full run with poise and assurance,
his brilliant top range conquering every high-B and C, with a few extras thrown
in. He proved a stalwart over a long and demanding assignment. The
MÈphistophÈlËs of Mark S. Doss, earlier in the season a bit hard to hear,
perhaps a bit under-powered, by late August was on top of every aspect of his
famous role. The voice was fine, the playing better than ever — and as
usual the Devil was the audience favorite — it was ever thus for the
Fallen Angel! The key role of Valentin was assumed in August by baritone
Christopher Magiera, new to Santa Fe and an experienced and competent
performer. Ideally, one wants to hear a more sonorous voice in this big role,
yet Magiera’s smooth lyric voice and musical taste met most demands; one
could relax with this Valentin and enjoy his music.

On the ladies’ side all was much as before, and again Ailyn PerËz was
a Marguerite of great beauty and stage worthiness. She is an enchanting
creature in her role of the girlish young woman seduced into tragedy. With
three performances in seven days of a demanding role, a ‘big sing’
by any measure, the soprano on closing night seemed frankly tired. Early on her
rich voice had color and point, her diction better than before, but by the end,
she was close to the edge, her Trio B-naturals uneasy. Perez is a major voice;
she well knows how to use it and how to inhabit a role, but she is still young
and there is work to be done. There is much to be anticipated from this
Chicago-born lyric soprano.

Last but foremost, the French conductor FrÈdÈric Chaslin, serving now as
Santa Fe Opera’s music director and chief conductor, proved the master of
his domain. He had the orchestra honed to a fine point, all was in place, with
shape and nuance lavished upon the familiar score that revitalized it and
brought forth the impressive talents of the SFO Orchestra. Reports from the
orchestra confirm high morale and eagerness to perform with this music master.
I trust we may look forward to more French repertory under Chaslin, a former
Santa Fe weak spot that is no longer a problem.

There had been rumors over the summer that the Opera would shorten the
production, perhaps dropping the Parade of Courtesans scene, which offered
much of the familiar Faust ballet music, if little classic ballet. Instead, each
of the demi- mondaines — Salome, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Dalila, Manon
and Carmen — offered her moments of temptation for the bedazzled young
Faust, with plenty of effective choreographed movement (by Nicola Bowie), and
sometimes humor. After twenty-minutes or so of such business, we were taken on
to more serious matters; but the interval had served its purpose and reminded
one how important dance and diversion are in 19th C. French opera. One had
especially to appreciate the creativity of costumer Sue Willmington, scenic
designer Benoit Dugardyn and the unusually effective lighting provided by Pat
Collins. There was much to see, almost more than could be grasped in one

On the matter of the evening’s length, three-hours and more can be a
trial for an audience seated semi-outdoors in a high-mountain environment. But,
I did not notice any empty seats after the intermission, and applause and
cheering at the final calls were substantial. Santa Fe’s Faust was a big
production of a big opera that is not always accorded a company’s full
forces these days; this time, Faust got what it deserved and Charles
MacKay’s opera company showed, most impressively, what they can do if
they really try. Well done!

In season 2012, two rarities, Rossini’s Maometto II and
Szymanowski’s King Roger will be featured. If given the measure of
quality provided Faust (and Menotti’s Last Savage) in the recent run, they should be well worth experiencing.

James A. Van Sant © 2011

image_description=Ailyn PÈrez as Marguerite and Bryan Hymel as Faust [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
product_title=Santa Fe Faust — Revisited
product_by=By James A. Van Sant
product_id=Above: Ailyn PÈrez as Marguerite and Bryan Hymel as Faust [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]