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Palo Alto
Lucie Stern Theatre
10/12/2001 -  Performances: October 13, 14, 19, 20 and 21, 2001
Charles Gounod: Faust
Benoit Gendron/Gabriel Reoyo-Pazos (Faust), Jesse Merlin (Wagner), Michael Morris/John Minagro (Mephistopheles), Karen Frankenstein/Deborah Mayhan (Marguerite), Margaret Lisi/Sonia Gariaeff (Siebel), Michael Taylor (Valentin), Constance Howard (Marthe Schwerlein)
Henry Mollicone, Conductor
Christopher Harlan, Stage Director

The tale of Faust is, on one level, a tale of good versus evil. And this was made abundantly clear in the first imagery to strike the eye when the curtain went up on West Bay Opera’s production of Charles Gounod’s opera on the subject. With a giant gaping-mouthed, red-eyed gargoyle on stage right and a graceful angel on stage left, these forces framed Faust in the opening scene.
After a leisurely paced overture under music director Henry Mollicone’s baton, the opera got off to a fussy, unfocused start. Tenor Benoit Gendron was appropriately brooding and filled with evident ennui in the opening. But on making his agreement with the devil, there was little evidence of any youthful transformation. Not only was there no attempt at a visual change aside from removing an outer cloak, but Gendron continued skulk about onstage lacking any energy or vitality on stage, even in his attempt to woo Marguerite.
Stage director Christopher Harlan did not help matters in the opening scene by adding Wagner (Jesse Merlin) to the scene, only to have him mime distractingly since his presence was not part of the scene as conceived by the composer and his librettists (the libretto clearly states that Faust is alone; “Faust, suel” being the very first words of stage direction.)
The appearance of Mephistopheles (Michael Morris) added much needed energy to the scene. Morris’s Mephistopheles was more a mischievous scamp than a malevolent demon. He clearly had a great deal of fun exercising his diabolical powers over not just Faust, but most of the cast. But there was little sense of threatening danger in his portrayal and he tended to deport himself in a manner associated with vampires of the silent film era, flowing red cape draped about an extended arm as if trying to avoid detection rather than reveling in his apparent omniscience.
Fortunately, Harlan’s fussiness only interfered with the story telling intermittently after the first scene and he kept to a light, romantic view of the Faust story for the most part.
With the appearance of Karen Frankenstein as Marguerite, the opera attained its first moments of pure pleasure and excellence. Her pure, demure presence and understanding of Marguerite’s character, both as a specific individual and as an archetype brought a welcome combination of sincerity and commitment to the stage. Frankenstein’s transformation of Marguerite from the self-assured, chaste maiden of the first half to the intensely emotional, guilt-ridden woman of the second half was both convincing and compelling.
Vocally, Frankenstein was also the strongest of the principals. Her clear, well-supported soprano suited the character, gentle and sweet but capable of riding the ensembles when necessary. Her Jewel Song in the garden scene, the lack of a trill aside, was charm itself and her final scene had an edge to keep the intensity and drama intact through a long pantomime sequence during the intermezzo.
Morris’s serviceable bass-baritone was a bit high for the role of Mephistopheles. The low notes were either inaudible or, as in the “Vous qui faites l’endormie”, entirely omitted. But he pace himself well, paid careful attention to the text, and made the most of his modest instrument.
Gendron’s tenor has a few pleasing notes and a reliable, if detached sounding top, but he relies heavily on a nasal tone that is neither appealing nor technically secure. The resulting sound is uneven with registers lacking integration and vairale placement.
Having Michael Taylor in the role of Valentin was a bit of luxury casting for this production. Taylor’s extensive stage experience, striking presence, and assured, solid singing made the most of his every appearance in Faust.
Constance Howard’s Marthe Schwelein was another gem, bringing a delightful glint of humor to an uneven garden scene. Her flawless comic timing, clear focused mezzo and warm maternal presence were all strong assets in a sparkling performance.
Jesse Merlin’s big baritone as Wagner and Margaret Lisi’s robust mezzo as Siebel rounded out the cast with youthful, energetic performance and solid vocalism.
The production of Faust featured sets by Jean-Francois Revon and costumes by Anna Bjornsdotter, and they seemed to be from entirely different productions. Revon’s sets included brightly painted bowers, an alcove suggesting heaven complete with arrow-shooting cupids, and a massive, forced-perspective cathedral as the main backdrop. These kitschy, Disneyesque settings may have suited Gounod’s music, but the clashed with the somber, muted tones of Bjornsdotter’s costumes in which the chorus appeared in greyed out rags. Chad Bonaker’s lighting was more in keeping with the costumer’s approach, with simple, sometimes underlit scenes.
Mollicone brought out some fine playing from the West Bay Opera Orchestra in his steady, leisurely paced reading of the score. The opera was performed with one intermission, omitted the Walpurgisnacht scene entirely, as is usually the case, as well as the scene in Marguerite’s room (the first scene of the original Act Four).
The chorus sound was variable; with the women sounding strong and well rehearsed, the men, less so. While it may have been necessitated by budgetary constraints, having the men’s chorus sing from offstage in the church scene that opens the second act only furthered the weak impression since they were barely audible.
Indeed, many of the design and directorial choices appeared to spring from financial constraints rather than any creative vision. And while the company’s spirit of adventure is commendable, it appears to have been stretched a little beyond its resources in getting it to the stage of the Lucie Stern Theatre.

Kelly Snyder



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