Charles Gounod’s “Faust” has one of the most lyrical scores in the operatic repertoire, but Michigan Opera Theatre’s production, which opened at the Detroit Opera House Saturday night, is a decidedly dark and even sinister affair.
Not content to coast along on Gounod’s familiar, pretty tunes, director Bernard Uzan has turned the dimmer switch down — way down. Dramatically, this “Faust” is about as shadowy as it gets, but it’s all done to advance dramatic urgency. Paul Steinberg’s brooding sets and Donald Thomas’ dusky lighting contribute strongly to the noirish mood.
This is, after all, an opera about the machinations of Satan. Faust, an aging scholar, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth and love. But Mephistopheles isn’t about to stop there; he wants to take Faust’s romantic interest, Marguerite, down the road to eternal damnation, too. Marguerite’s madness near the end is often just suggested at in most productions, but in this outing she goes completely mental, with surreal religious images magnifying her dementia.
As Mephistopheles, bass Matt Boehler is almost unnervingly effective. It’s not enough for this character to project mere malevolence because Mephistopheles also has to use his wiles and oily charm to insinuate himself into the lives of these largely guileless people.
Tall, thin, bearded and clad in black, Boehler struts arrogantly on the stage, looking derisively down his hooked nose at everyone. When he’s not strutting, he’s lurking in the shadows or laughing mockingly at his victims. His carriage is ramrod-straight; the only time he bends is when the villagers defiantly turn their swords upside down, suggesting crosses.
Tenor Russell Thomas, portraying Faust, has a robust, clarion voice, but his instrument tends to lose support when he sings softly. He may not have the most subtle voice, but he nailed the top C squarely in his gorgeous aria “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure.” The effect was like a sunburst after a storm. It’s too bad, though, that the violin solo in the accompaniment was blemished by some sour notes.
Marguerite, sung by metro Detroit native Caitlin Lynch, goes from a naïve, chaste young woman to one who falls in love, gets pregnant out of wedlock, kills her child, goes to prison, then has to fight Faust and Mephistopheles to save her soul. She’s put through an emotional wringer, and the way Uzan shapes the drama, it’s reminiscent of Lucia’s Mad Scene in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Lynch transitioned well through these dramatically charged scenes, all the while projecting a lustrous, silvery voice. Her trills needed more precision in the “Jewel Song,” but her trumpet-bright timbre and glittering high B at the aria’s conclusion were thrilling.
Valentin (Marguerite’s soldier brother) has what is likely the most beautiful aria in the opera, “Avant de quitter ces lieux.” The young, good-looking American baritone John Viscardi is one of the few in the cast who has a genuine French style to his singing, calling to mind such elegant Gallic baritones as Robert Massard and Ernest Blanc. Valentin may not be a huge role, but it’s a pivotal one, and Viscardi turned in a persuasive performance.
Mezzo-soprano Kimberly Sogioka sang with warmth and authority as Siebel, and Suzanne Mallare Acton’s prowess with the chorus was commendable.
Steven Mercurio’s vigorous work in the pit sometimes suggested Verdi more than Gounod, but his work with the orchestra, as usual, was solid.
However, Mercurio skipped the charming ballet music in Act V. Yes, this is a long opera, and the omission is sometimes taken for that reason, but Gounod wrote this music to be included, not excluded.
And in a such an ominous and stygian production, a little waltzing and sunlight would have been a tonic.
Through May 17at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, downtown Detroit. Lynch and Thomas sing May 13 and 16; Sarah Joy Miller and David Miller alternate in the roles on May 17. Tickets: $25-$128. 313-237-7464, michiganopera.org.