‘Faust’ condemned to mediocre opera

Music that is often less than profound, an orchestra that sounded too small for its role, even an unwell leading man — for all these reasons, the Yale Opera’s production of Charles Gounod’s “Faust” at the Shubert Theater Friday night needed rescuing from itself. That salvation might have come from the inventive staging and set design and generally fine singing from the soloists, but in the end it was not quite enough.

“Faust,” which premiered in 1859, is not a great opera. The music always seems reluctant to abandon its prevailing mood of easygoing tunefulness, which is an unfortunate trait for a work that attempts to engage the prospect and ramifications of eternal damnation. Who ever heard of an attempted suicide scene in F major?

And when Gounod intends pathos, he generally resorts to diminished seventh chords, string tremolos and increased volume — a tendency which threatens to descend into mannerism as the opera progresses. At the end, one is left with a nagging question: What would Verdi have done?

The small pit orchestra occasionally struggled with Gounod’s scoring, with oddly balanced chords frequently emerging from the woodwind section and a few lapses in string intonation. The most immediate obstacle this production had to overcome, though, was the illness of tenor Kevin Hill MUS ’02, slated to play Faust. Hill fought gamely through one scene with a terribly thin, pinched, cracking voice before yielding to Saturday night’s Faust, Jan Kvistborg MUS ’02. The switch, made during a chorus scene, was as smooth as could be. Faust gained about 20 pounds and a good deal of vocal power while offstage, but Kvistborg took instantly to his unexpected job, adapting Faust’s character and mannerisms seamlessly.

Problems aside, there were some definite attractions to Friday night’s production. The scenery and staging, borrowed from a Philadelphia production, were innovative without being distracting. A slightly tilted floor painted in black and white quasi-3D patterns led up to the interior of a study with walls and floor crazily askew, which was turned away or replaced as the staging demanded. The chorus, although their singing sometimes lacked the ideal blend, moved like a band of automatons, jerking their limbs and freezing in place with strikingly disorienting effect. The intention might have been to reflect the torment and distortion of Faust’s soul, but in any case the sheer visual experience was engaging and never seemed to clash with the opera’s dramatic necessities.

Much of the singing, too, managed to rise above the production’s musical shortcomings. Outstanding among the cast was baritone Nicolai Janitzky MUS ’02, who sang the role of Valentin with a clean, focused sound that always remained on pitch despite the notorious difficulty of singing French vowels. His achievements were all the more remarkable given that he sang a good part of his role lying on the stage. Krzysztof Kowalewski MUS ’01 seemed a little less sure in the role of Mephistopheles than he did during his performance in a scene from “Faust” in the fall, but his bright bass voice and stage presence were effective nonetheless.

Kvistborg as Faust and soprano Laura Danehower Whyte MUS ’01 as Marguerite were generally excellent as well, though Whyte only really came into her own vocally with the mad scene at the opera’s conclusion. In supporting roles, mezzos Kellie Jenkins MUS ’01 and Eva Vogel MUS ’02 and bass Steven Timoner MUS ’01 were dramatically and musically effective despite occasional pitch problems and lack of tonal focus.

Finally, undergraduate Ambjorn Elder ’02, in the non-singing role of Old Faust, overcame some initial timidity to tackle with convincing assurance the challenging task of interacting on stage with his younger self.

Vocal performances were always quite good at the very least from all members of the cast, and the staging, lighting and direction provided a compelling visual experience. The one stumbling block Yale Opera could not overcome, though, was the pervasive sense of shallowness exuded by the music itself.

The production was repeated on Saturday night with Victoria Maloley MUS ’02 as Marguerite, Leah Wool MUS ’02 as the villager Siebel, Kvistborg as Faust, Brian Mulligan MUS ’03 as Valentin and Christian Van Horn MUS ’02 as Mephistopheles, and again on Sunday with Friday night’s cast.

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