Gounod's "Faust" was once the world's most popular opera, but recently it has fallen on hard times--so much so that the Metropolitan Opera, which used to be called the "Faustspielhaus," isn't even opening its centenary season with this work, which opened its first season. Still, "Faust" is a lovely piece of music, which makes the National Lyric Opera's new "Faust" a welcome event.
And the part of it that is the most welcome is the performance as Marguerite of New York City Opera soprano Marianna Christos. She was singing beautifully from the beginning. Expressively, it took her a little time to warm up. Finally, in the trio that ends the opera she was simply superb. Marguerite's intense outburst after being condemned to death for killing her child was blazingly sung. It is Gounod's best music, and Christos sang it last night as few present-day sopranos could. The singing was precisely focused, full and passionate. It came as all the more a surprise to this listener too, because her Adina in the Washington Opera's "L'Elisir d'Amore" had seemed a disappointment.
Do not misunderstand, this production, which will be repeated at Lisner Auditorium tonight, is not grand opera done on a grand scale. The National Lyric cannot afford that, particularly after its financially and artistically disastrous debut a while ago with Verdi's "La Forza del Destino."
In addition to Christos, there were some considerable strengths last night. Mezzo Susanne Marsee, another City Opera vet, was pretty delightful in the minor pants role of Siebel, the boy in love with Marguerite before Faust and Me'phistophe'le s whisk her away to perdition.
The Faust, Robert Grayson, was perfectly acceptable, and perhaps the reason he lacked great distinction was that he was said to have been singing despite a cold. One thing about him was welcome, for sure; this was a Faust with the physical figure to suggest that the solitary old philosopher got at least part of the youthful virility he sought in his bargain with the devil.
Jonathan Hughes, as the student Wagner, and Donna Merriman, as Marguerite's friend Martha, both were fine.
The one soloist who was not fine was Nikita Rosanoff in the important baritone part of the soldier Valentin. Rosanoff is a stage name for Nikita Wells, the company's general manager. Maybe if the general manager would limit his compulsion for performing to bit parts, it wouldn't matter. But Valentin has one of Gounod's finest arias, the melting "Avant de quitter ces lieux," so fine a melody that Gounod also put it in the overture. Rosanoff butchered it. Often, it was not so much that he sang the notes badly as that he missed them altogether.
Ray Fowler, who conducted his Prince George's Philharmonic, showed a real knack for keeping complex operatic forces together. The orchestra was variable, but there were several good soloists--of whom first clarinet Matthew Rukowski was so outstanding that he needs to be singled out, both for his beautiful tone and his phrasing.
The choral work varied, but the men in the soldiers' chorus especially had real lusty force.
The sets and costumes were fairly innocuous. And, as for the dancing, the Walpurgis Nacht orgy had sufficient near-nudity to take your mind, and eye, off the jumbled choreography.