In This 'Faust,' A Devil Worth Knowing

Burak Bilgili as Mephistopheles in the Virginia Opera's production of
Burak Bilgili as Mephistopheles in the Virginia Opera's production of "Faust." (By Anne M. Peterson)
By Grace Jean
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Virginia Opera consistently produces fine productions that are reliably traditional and unfailingly entertaining. Its Sunday afternoon presentation of Charles Gounod's "Faust" at George Mason University's Center for the Arts ranked among the company's best, boasting a strong, well-rounded cast, appealing sets and costumes and music of the highest order.

Based on Goethe's play of the same name, "Faust" follows the story of an aging professor who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth and love. But it is the transformation of Faust's lover, Marguerite, from an angelic young woman into a murderer and, finally, a condemned prisoner that is often most compelling.

The production stayed as true as possible to the libretto, with scenery design by Miguel Romero and lighting by Donald Edmund Thomas. Stage director Bernard Uzan further emphasized and complemented Gounod's melodious music without hampering the cast's singing abilities, notably during the large ensemble numbers.

The cast and the orchestra, comprising Richmond Symphony musicians, responded dynamically to Virginia Opera Artistic Director Peter Mark's lively and communicative conducting.

Turkish bass Burak Bilgili's Mephistopheles was imposing, comedic, menacing and regal by turns. His commanding voice, flecked with golden, spicy tones, is unusually expansive for a bass; Bilgili easily projected it above the orchestra.

Amanda Borst, whose radiant soprano bubbled up and out with little effort, was a convincing Marguerite. With a silvery, fluid voice, she exuded a natural girlish charm while trying on baubles during the "Jewel" aria and sang hauntingly as a ghostly, shackled figure who cradles a make-believe infant in her arms.

As Faust, tenor Marcus McConico sounded best when he was allowed to sing freely and without competition with the orchestra. Though his voice was perhaps a bit compact for the part -- he often needed to push for projection -- McConico nailed his higher pitches loudly during climactic moments. He sang a tenderly romantic "Salut! Demeure chaste et pure." Like soprano Borst, McConico has an impressive lower range; his occasional dips into baritone territory revealed a darkly rich tone.

Rounding out the cast, baritone Daniel Olson, the sole Virginia Opera veteran among the cast members, sang moving arias as Valentin, Marguerite's soldier brother, who is fatally wounded by Faust during a duel. In the trouser role of Siebel, soprano Giavanna Kersulis sang sweetly with emotion, while mezzo-soprano Adriane Shelton portrayed the flirtatious Dame Marthe Schwerlein. Baritone Todd Robinson gave an enthusiastic performance as Wagner. Last but not least, the spirited chorus displayed commendable musicality throughout this season-closing performance.

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