No one seems quite sure of what to do with Gounod's "Faust" these days. Conductors tend to take it in a bored, routine manner, few sopranos can manage the Jewel Song as Gounod wrote it, and fewer tenors have the kind of vocal elegance and real style needed for the title role.
Rather consistently, however, the heavy basses now in good supply make opera's most famous devil a fine matter of sinister evil. The New York City's "Faust," seen on Monday night, has its high points and its very low ones, the latter generally brought on by Frank Corsaro's stage direction which vacillates between good psychology and incomprehensible muddling.
Why, for instance, should poor Marguerita have to spend the entire ballade of the King of Thule undoing her bodice? (The Paris Opera, at least, had her take the laundry off a clothes line.) Not that soprano Mariana Niculescu was hampered in her singing by the strip job. Her voice tends toward the shrill, she lacks Gounod's trill, and her entire approach, abetted by Corsaro's intentions, make her look and sound more as if she wished she were playing Isolde. For starters, she might sing the Jewel Song as it is written.
Samuel Ramey's Mephistopheles rightly dominates every scene in which he appears. He has a grand time raising hell all over the place, acting and singing handsomely all the while. He makes no false moves, and his voice does what he asks of it.
There was one other notable real artist in this "Faust": Faith Esham, singing Siebel, could do no wrong. Her voice is radiantly beautiful, her French, on a night when the language was often sorely abused, a clear pleasure, and her acting ideal. In the ensembles led by Siebel, and in every one on her solo lines, Esham projected real greatness.
Dominic Cossa is a fine singer, but he and conductor Christopher Keene need to rethink Valentin's big aria. It was rushed, shapeless, poor in French enunciation, and, in the last phrase, abused by turning the words around so that the singer could end on an "ah" rather than the printed "eux." Such a shabby stunt, not to mention that the notes were altered at the same time.
Poor Faust! Rarely has he looked and sounded more milksoppy. Richard Taylor has a pleasant, light tenor which, in soft passages, had a certain charm. But he is neither gallant, romantic, ardent nor up to the vocal demands of the famous part.
Jane Shauslis, however, was an excellent Marthe, and James Sergi adequate as Wagner.
Now for the good news: The Kermesse scene, with a real, live fire-eater named Presto, lively dancers and jugglers, was a brilliant affair. The Church Scene, too, was well handled. Keene's conducting seemed to changed by whim, sometimes finding just the right touch, but as often missing the boat entirely. Either do "Faust" right or leave it alone!