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Review: “Faust” at Annapolis Opera

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Annapolis Opera’s Faust, at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, is everything opera should be: dramatic, emotional, with a great story and special effects. Directed by Braxton Peters and conducted by Ronald J. Gretz, it combines amazing music, acting, and singing with excellent lighting effects by Michael Klima, superb scenic design by Arne Lidquist, and captivating costumes by Lorraine Vom Saal to keep the audience hooked for all three hours of the performance.

'Faust' Montage courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

‘Faust’ Montage courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Faust was written by Charles Gounod, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, adapted from Carre’s play Faust et Marguerite, which is loosely based on Goethe’s Faust, Part 1. It premiered in 1859, and according to Gretz’s message, “was the first opera performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York” in 1883. The plot makes clear why the opera is so popular over the years: Faust (Joshua Dennis), an aging scholar, makes a deal with the devil Mephistopheles (Jamie Offenbach) for youth in exchange for his soul. As Annapolis Opera President Lee Finney said in her opening remarks, “What could possibly go wrong?”

A young man again, Faust encounters the beautiful Marguerite (Shannon Jennings), and falls tremendously in love with her. Mephistopheles uses his powers to help Faust win Marguerite, but when she becomes pregnant, her brother Valentin (Keith Harris) challenges Faust to a duel and dies. Mephistopheles torments Marguerite until, on the eve of her execution, she escapes her suffering and ascends to heaven.

Originally written as a five-act opera, this performance changed it to three, while retaining all the action and story. There is a 15-minute intermission between Acts 1 and 2, and a 10-minute intermission between Acts 2 and 3.

All the performers fill their roles with energy and enthusiasm. Offenbach clearly has fun playing Mephistopheles. He races around the stage, leaps onto benches, and several times falls to the ground in laughter. While he calls Faust “master” he is obviously in charge. While singing about “the calf of gold” (Le veau d’or est toujours debout!) he has the townspeople transfixed, compelling them to shuffle their feet and sing with him the refrain “Satan leads the dance.” With a wave of his hand, Marguerite enters on stage, ready for Faust to seduce her. He watches Faust court Marguerite from the shadows (Vous qui faites l’endormie). He is at the center when the townspeople begin to waltz, as though at his command. He might very well be called this performance’s director or conductor.

Thanks to Lorraine Vom Saal’s costumes, Mephistopheles changes from the start of the opera to the end. When he first appears to Faust, he’s wearing a purple cape, with bejeweled shirt and black leather boots. He seems more flamboyant and aristocratic than anything else. By Act 3, however, he looks particularly demonic terrifying Marguerite, wrapped in a black monk’s cloak and a cowl covering his face. He is the face of evil.

Jennings is a pure delight as Marguerite. She captures the joy and purity of a young maiden. She can’t help but smile when she sings, and neither can the audience. When she first sings about Faust, imagining him to be a noble lord and comparing him to the King of Thule, who drinks from his beautiful cup one last time before dying,  (Je voudrais bien savoir…Il était un Roi de Thulé) her voice rings with a haunting romance.

She’s also very physically active. She twirls around several times in ecstasy, placing her arm in Faust’s during their duet, (O nuit d’amour) her head on his shoulder. She pushes him away too, when she feels they’re in too deep. And the horror is evident on her face when Mephistopheles torments her in church for her pregnancy (Dans les bruyeres), or when Valentine dies and he damns her for following her heart, “shirking virtue for her own pleasure” (Ecoute moi bien Margherite). She captures the highs and lows of human emotion.

Dennis makes a powerful Faust. His transformation at the start of the opera is incredible: from an old man, stooped over and using a cane, bearded and a simple cloak covering him to a clean-shaven young man wearing bright vests and eager to taste the world’s pleasures. He is perhaps the most stationary of the main performers, tending to sit or stand as he sings. And his emotions are not always as evident as the others. Still, it’s clear that he’s in love with Marguerite, and he gives a powerful performance as a man determined to woo her. His praise of her house, “beautiful in its purity” (Salut! demeure chaste et pure) is utterly romantic.

This opera has some gender-bending as well. Jennifer Panara plays Siebel, a young man also in love with Marguerite. He promises to look after her while Valentin is away at war. Panara plays Siebel well – a fresh-faced boy loyal to his friends and eager for love. His short aria (Faites-lui mes âveux) delivering flowers to Marguerite’s home, while remembering Mephistopheles’ curse, brought much applause. There’s a funny moment when Mephistopheles briefly waltzes with Siebel before shoving him away and bringing Faust back to the center of attention.

Another comic scene happens when Marthe (Patrizia Conte), Marguerite’s neighbor, hears from Mephistopheles that her husband is dead; the devil gives her a letter, saying her husband “sends her his greetings.” She then begins to flirt with Mephistopheles, who isn’t interested at all, as “she’s been left on the vine too long” (Dame Marthe Schwertlein). It helps break up the romance and tragedy to come.

Michael Klima’s lighting design makes a tremendous impact, particularly in establishing Mephistopheles’ powers. When he first appears, there’s a flash of red light. The stage darkens when he makes night hasten. Sometimes it’s more subtle, as when the stage takes on a shade of blue when he compels the townspeople to dance with him. During the church scene, a white cross is projected onto the back of the stage. After Mephistopheles has tortured Marguerite, the cross changes to blood red, with black streaks.

Faust brings together all the elements of good drama to make a powerful, entertaining performance. It only plays for two nights, so be sure to catch it while it’s here.

Running Time: 3 hours, with two intermissions.

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Annapolis Opera’s Faust plays Friday, March 18th and tomorrow, Sunday, March 20, 2016 at 3 PM at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts – 801 Chase Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 263-5544, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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