By Charles Gounod
Presented by West Bay Opera
At the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA; 650-424-9999
Conducted by Henry Mollicone
Directed by Christopher Harlan

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Charles Gounod's Faust, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré;, tells a familiar story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for getting his wish. In this case, it's the love of a virtuous woman, whose life he ruins. Much of the music also has become familiar because it's so melodic. West Bay Opera's production got off on the right musical foot with a sonorous, balanced overture conducted by music director Henry Mollicone, who adhered to an expansive, almost slow tempo. Thereafter, though, his tempos were more flexible, as befit the music.

As is the custom with WBO productions, most of the principals were young professional singers who show great promise. This was especially true of soprano Karen Frankenstein as Marguerite, the wronged woman. (Most of the principals were double-cast. Deborah Mayhan alternated in the role.) Except for a couple of strained high notes, Frankenstein exhibited excellent control and technique, pacing herself well. The Jewel Song was especially lovely. Her acting was at least adequate. She clearly pantomimed the killing of Marguerite's child during the orchestral introduction to this production's final scene -- a nice touch by stage director Christopher Harlan.

Tenor Benoît Gendron (alternating with Gabriel Reoyo-Pazos) as Faust was more problematic. He has a relatively light but pleasant tenor voice, but his highest notes were badly distorted. Perhaps more seriously, his stage presence was poor. He's tall and nicely proportioned, but he slouched, and his movements lacked grace. Hence, he failed to command the stage. His longish, Prince Valiant hairstyle (one assumes it was a wig) didn't help.

Michael Morris (alternating with John Miná;gro) as Méphistophélès would be a good performer for Gendron to emulate. Morris brought an air of confidence and authority to the role, easily commanding the stage, as Méphistophélès should, but the director had him involved in too much stage business with his red cape. He also sang well, bringing a sonorous bass and strong acting skills to the role. Another man who commanded the stage well was tenor Michael Taylor (no alternate) as Valentin, Marguerite's brother. As a soldier, he was swashbuckling, and as a brother he was tenderly solicitous. He also sang with clarity and passion.

Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lisi (alternating with Sonia Gariaeff) was directed to be too flouncy in the trousers role of the youthful Siébel), but her singing was polished with effortless high notes. Ably completing the cast were baritone Jesse Merlin as Wagner and mezzo-soprano Constance Howard as Marthe Schwerlein. Neither had an alternate.

As is sometimes the case with WBO productions, the men's chorus needed more vigor. The singing was not quite up to their usual standards, though, with a lack of unity in some choruses and some mushy French diction. Likewise, the women seemed less lively than in some past productions, but the singing was acceptable.

Jean-François Revon's set design was almost comical when the devil arrived in Faust's study and the eyes of a grotesque animal-like statue glowed red. The church in the background of later scenes was nicely designed, though, giving the effect of reaching heavenward. Anna Björnsdotter's costumes seemed appropriate for the 16th century German setting, and Chad Bonaker's lighting was serviceable, as was Jack E. Wilkinson's sound design.

This production cut both Marguerite's spinning wheel scene and the Walpurgis Night scene, so it clocked in at about three hours. On the whole, it was quite enjoyable with high musical standards.

For more information, see the West Bay Opera home page.

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Monday, 29-Oct-2001 23:53:04 PST