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Beczala triumphs in Lyric debut

Civic Opera House
10/05/2009 -  & October 8, 11, 17*, 20, 23, 30, November 3, 7
Charles Gounod: Faust
Piotr Beczala*/Joseph Kaiser (Faust), Ana María Martínez (Marguerite), René Pape*/Kyle Ketelsen (Méphistophélès), Lucas Meachem (Valentin), Jane Bunnell (Marthe), Katherine Lerner (Siébel), Corey Crider (Wagner)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Donald Nally (chorus master), Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)
Robert Perdziola (set/costume designer), Christine Binder (lighting designer), Frank Corsaro (director)

P. Beczala & R. Pape (© Dan Rest)

Lyric Opera of Chicago brought superstars Piotr Beczala and René Pape in for the company’s revival of its 2003 production of Gounod’s Faust. Despite an oddly portrayed Marguerite and some poor stage direction, Pape and Beczala soared throughout the night and gave the audience the well crafted artistry for which the two have earned their reputations around the world.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala has risen recently to stardom stateside with major successes at the Met and San Francisco. In this, his house debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago, he showed why he’s already one of the top tenors of his time. Right from the opera’s first scene, the tenor displayed a clear, free sound with perfect French diction and expert breath control. His Act III “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” was sung expertly with long legato lines and controlled dynamic changes. Faust’s notorious high C came so effortlessly for Beczala that he managed to sway his head towards the house several times at the note’s apex, as if to coat the audience with his piercing tone. He was appropriately tender during his duet with Marguerite and stood out in both trios from the final two acts. Dramatically, Beczala portrayed a traditional Faust, hovering between lust and real sentiment without going overboard on either. The tenor’s perfect vocal placement never tired throughout the night, allowing him to expend his energy at the right moments without sacrificing any vocal beauty. Lyric’s audience rewarded him with the biggest ovation of the night. The company would be wise to bring him back early and often.

Beczala’s demonic servant came in the form of German superstar bass René Pape, whose famed portrayal of Méphistophélès did not disappoint. From his first duet with Beczała, “A moi les plaisirs,” Pape commanded attention with the subtlest actions—a wry smile here, a change of stance there. He employed every nuance possible to send laughter throughout the house. Pape has all the erotic comedy of the Gounod devil down to a tee, yet (rightfully so) his singing exceeds his excellent theatrical portrayal. Despite some hesitance during “Le veau d’or,” he settled down quickly and almost managed to steal the scene from Faust and Marguerite during the third act. His hilariously guttural “Vous qui faites l’endormie” was all the more impressive in comparison to his silky invocation of the night during Act III. Pape’s voice exploded through the house with ease just as the devil’s should, but he also displayed perfect messa di voce and a solid, unforced top. His scenes with Beczala were especially electric, as the two fed off of each other throughout the night.

Unfortunately, the leading lady of the production didn’t live up to her male colleagues. Yes, Ana María Martínez’s trills and top were there during “Ah, je ris.” Her diction was sufficient and she didn’t overextend during ensembles. But something was missing: girlishness. Both vocally and dramatically, the soprano failed to convey Marguerite’s girlish femininity. Her acting seemed to have no purpose or core and her excessive stock gestures proved quite distracting. Vocally, Martínez seemed a bit out of place among the cast. Of course, Marguerite is no light sing, but the Puerto Rican native’s metallic, edgy voice never showed any signs of the innocence and naiveté that Faust professes to desire in her. To her credit, Martínez improved throughout the night (her frantic and edgy sound worked better with Marguerite’s loosening sanity), and the church scene with Pape was gut wrenching. But one wondered why a Faust seeking a modest, young, innocent maiden would choose this decidedly not girlish Marguerite.

The rest of the cast turned in mostly positive performances. American baritone Lucas Meachem as Valentine sang a fine “Avant de quitter ces lieux” but lacked the charisma of the other principals. Credit goes to him for putting up with Frank Corsaro’s stage direction during his death scene, though. Ryan Opera Center mezzo Katherine Lerner as Siébel had some diction problems during “Faites-lui mes âveux” but got it together afterwards and sang well the rest of the night. Jane Bunnell’s Marthe had perfect chemistry with Pape’s Mephistopheles, as the mezzo rightfully earned some of the biggest laughs of the night. Apart from Pape and Beczała, the other real star of the night was the Lyric chorus. The men in particular sang gloriously despite getting some shticky stage direction during act two. Their “Gloire immortelle” was as powerful (literally and figuratively) as it should be. Chorus master Donald Nally deserves much credit for getting the most out of his singers. Sir Andrew Davis seemed a bit slower than usual during key sections of the score, and in more than one place he failed to maintain pace with his cast (notably during the Act III Marguerite-Faust duet).

Frank Corsaro’s “updated” 19th century production enticed the eye with grandiose stone walls, colorful costumes, well-designed props and clever lighting schemes. The result was, unfortunately, a beautiful but cluttered stage that left singers in awkward positions for much of the performance. More importantly, Corsaro seems either not to have worked with his cast very hard or to have given them very poor theatrical direction. Among the worst offenders: Ana María Martínez’s previously mentioned overly exaggerated acting; excruciatingly melodramatic signs of the cross; tacky overacting by the silent extras. The biggest head scratcher by far came during Valentin’s death scene. After being stabbed by Faust, Lucas Meachem’s Valentin stood up straight, jogged (yes, jogged) offstage and back, walked around as if unharmed during the rest of his aria, then managed to discover he was supposed to die shortly thereafter and collapsed to the ground. All the stereotypes of cheesy, overdone operatic acting could be found at various points throughout the performance. Corsaro could have done better.

Luckily, none of this impeded the marvelous performances of Beczala and Pape. It would be difficult to find two singers more suited to Gounod’s Faust-Mephisto duo than this pair—having both in the same production was quite a treat for the Lyric audience, which will undoubtedly remember their portrayals for years to come.

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Paul Wooley



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