Denton — The University of North Texas College of Music closed its opera season with scaled-down production of Gounod’s Faust. Director Jonathan Eaton’s complete reimagining of Gounod’s opera and music director Stephen Dubberly’s chamber orchestration, puts old wine in new bottles and the result is remarkably compelling, partly thanks to cast of uniformly outstanding singers.
Who knows what a tut-tutting and inflexible purist would think and frankly, who cares? The audience was so captivated that we forgot to be surprised. Here are some thoughts on how he did it.
Nothing of importance to the storyline was removed and anything extraneous to the tragedy was jettisoned. The result is an intense couple of hours and a transformation Gounod’s opera. Even the music, which is occasionally saccharin, sounded different, and not just because of the reduced orchestration. You would be forgiven if you guessed that the opera was written decades later than it was.
The story of Faust and his disastrous pact with the devil has fascinated writers, composers and eager readers ever since 1587 with the publication of a small and unattributed pamphlet (called a chapbook), entitled Historia von D. Johann Fausten. But the legend of selling one’s soul to the devil in exchange for worldly luxuries go back even further in ballades and puppet plays. Around the same time as the chapbook, Christopher Marlowe wrote a major play on the subject: The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. But Faust attained his ultimate glory 200 years later when novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used the subject to write what is widely considered the greatest work of German literature.
Opera composers took notice and there are a number of operatic treatments. On the grandiose side even Hector Berlioz and Arrgio Boito had a shy at it, and there are some experimental contemporary versions. But Gounod’s opera, simply titled Faust, is the most frequently performed of the bunch, although it seems to come in and out of favor.
Gounod’s Faust is described as a grand opera in five acts, based on a libretto by Jules Barber and Michael Carré and was based on Carré’s own play Faust et Marguerite, which was in turn loosely based on Marlowe’s aforementioned play. Undertaking a full-blown production of this rightly called “grand” opera is a major effort that taxes the resources of even major opera houses because it is filled with large choruses, elaborate scenery and even ballets.
But what would be the result if you took the “grand” out of it, returned to the style of the simple chapbook, and concentrated it down to its parfum extrait or a fine chef’s reduction? This result was exactly what was presented in the Murchison Performing Arts Center in Denton last weekend.
Gounod’s large cast was condensed to the five main protagonists and the five acts concentrated into two. The choruses and ballets were jettisoned. Elaborate sets were eschewed by Donna Marquet, whose minimal set was created with a few pieces of furniture. Even the stage was concentrated and reduced, playing the action on a small curtained platform. Foreshadowing the ending horror, what appeared to be cocoons or maybe mummified babies, hung from the ceiling.
As in physics, concentration of the elements raises up the level of heat, and so it was here. Eaton’s staging was as minimized as his concept. Interactions were face to face with only what movement was necessary. Dubberly stripped down the Romantic-sized orchestration to 15 solo musicians, hidden behind the stage. Michael Robinson’s vaguely Middle Ages costumes were barely noticeable and in shades of brown except for one exclamation mark: a brightly colored red Jester’s motley for the debonair devil.
I attended the production on April 6, the second night of the show. Since the five roles are double cast, I was only able to hear one of the casts but I was assured by some who attended opening night that the first cast was equally as good as the one I heard. And they were all quite good indeed. It is a tribute to the quality of the voice faculty at UNT.
Briefly, here is the plot: Faust is an intellectual who rails against his inability to understand the why of the universe and sells his soul to the devil in exchange for infinite knowledge and the restoration of youth. Thus, the devil grants but tosses in a spoiler in the person of a beautiful and innocent young girl, Marguerite. Faust seduces her, which results in a pregnancy that makes her an outcast and she ends up in jail and with her reason lost and grasp on reality severed. The devil encourages Faust to try to spring her out of jail but she is beyond reaching. The devil declares her damned but a heavenly choir declares her saved. This three-note salvation chorus is all that remains of the many large choral passages in the opera and is sung backstage by a handful of singers.
Marguerite is one of those challenging opera roles where a singer has to portray a young girl of age 14 or so. Madame Butterfly, Salomé and Juliet immediately come to mind. Marguerite has the added challenge of portraying pure innocence.
With the help of an obviously beloved doll and skipping around the stage, soprano Brittany Jones conveys a serious version of girlishness without any hint of childishness. Her parentless Marguerite foreshadows her adulthood as if she somehow felt that her life would end tragically. Vocally, she has a lovely lyric soprano voice, which served her well in surmounting all of the challenges that Gounod presents. She needed a little more heft in the prison scene but that will come with more experience.
As Marthe, Marguerite’s guardian as Marguerite obviously lacks parents, Amanda O’Toole was excellent as a foil for Mephistopheles as he tried to distract her long enough for Faust to put the moves on Marguerite. She is a real mezzo with a terrific voice.
Marguerite’s only protector is her brother Valentin, who is a solider. As luck would have it, he has to go off to war at the exact moment that the devil is hatching his plot to use his sister as an object of irresistible temptation in his plot to damn Faust. Austin Murray has a beautiful voice and a mature delivery. He was able to convey Valentin’s stiff morality, both as he left his sister to go search for military glory, and when he returned to find her disgraced. The subsequent sword fight with Faust, with the devil constantly putting his thumb on the scale, was excellently done.
As Siebel, Josefina Maldonado presented a remarkably mature mezzo voice and did a fine job of portraying a young man. This is one of the most well-known of the pants parts or trouser roles, in which a mezzo is cast as a young boy on the edge of manhood. Vocally, she was superb
T. Hastings Reeves brought a complex and deep bass baritone voice to the pivotal role of Mephistopheles. He used his malleable vocal abilities to color each of his lines to enhance their intent, from mellifluous cooings to a sardonic snarl. He was a relatively low-key devil, depending on wile rather than action.
This brings us to Faust himself. Steven Keen Hyland has a lovely lyric tenor voice which was able to bring an almost spinto sound to the dramatic moments. However, the fact that he observed Gounod’s markings to sing some high notes pianissimo gets him a star in Tenor Heavens. These notes are routinely blasted in a manner more suited to Puccini than the refined Gounod. The effect, when sung correctly as Reeves did, was magical.
Overall, this production of Faust was a complete surprise to this writer. I know this opera quite well, having both sung and conducted it in the distant past. No one told me ahead of time that this was a completely new concept of the opera and I was both surprised and fascinated from the start. When it was all over, shorn of its spectacle and with the final scene implying that Marguerite was hung by the neck with her illicit child, added to the shrouded hanging cocoons by a gleeful devil, you suddenly realized what a dark opera it is.
The traditionalists might complain about doing such an intense redux of a masterpiece, but even they would have to admire the modernization of one of opera’s war horses.