Austin Lyric Opera closed its season with a haunting and powerful production of Gounod's devilish work
Reviewed by Natalie Zeldin, Fri., May 3, 2013
FaustDell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Austin Lyric Opera's production of Gounod's Faust was so haunting and powerful that I can feel my shoulders tensing as I approach the keyboard to type this review.
When the opera premiered in 1859 in Paris, it was criticized for being too restrained. This flashy production, however, could hardly be accused of being dull or understated. Stage director Bernard Uzan took artistic liberty with the settings, refitting the originals for the 21st century. The tavern became a glitzy bar, the garden a modern flower shop complete with neon sign, the church a macabre farce with a live Christ who descends from his cross, and – most disturbing of all – the final scene's mental institution a blindingly fluorescent-lit ward of a modern psychiatric hospital.
As Mephistopheles, Hawaiian native Jamie Offenbach offered not only a great vocal performance but also a magnetic stage presence. His maniacal smiles and laughs drove the show. His rendition of "Le veau d'or est toujours debout!" – sung while standing atop a plush red ottoman in the middle of the nightclub – was at once evil and hilarious. Another highlight was "Salut! demeure chaste et pure," the tender love song that Faust, played by Jonathan Boyd, sings for Marguerite.
Even so, the most moving musical moment came from one of the secondary characters. Valentin's swan song was, quite simply, rapturous. The voice of bassist Hyung Yun was so rich that, when he opened his mouth, you could almost see streams of velvet flowing outward. Had I heard just that for the evening, I would have left feeling satisfied.
The lighting of words across the backdrop throughout the evening proved a bizarre choice. The words, in English, flashed as if to encapsulate themes of the music and text, but instead of being a helpful interpretive aid, it was distracting – like seeing CliffsNotes projected onto a book while you're reading it. Why would you even want to show this watered-down version as you're showing the real McCoy? You don't need to flash the word "good" while Marguerite sings of heaven; we can easily perceive "goodness" through the purity and grace of soprano Jan Cornelius' tone and movements. Nonetheless, the production was a tour de force for lighting designer Michael Baumgarten, who deserves tremendous credit for the seamless choreography of the pyrotechnics.
Lastly, the orchestra – directed by ALO Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Richard Buckley – sounded fantastic, enlivening Gounod's sensual and thick scored music. There was a particularly sensitive clarinet solo, however brief, in the final act that bears mentioning: Kudos to Vanguel Tangarov for that tremendous moment.