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Vibrant production

Gounod's 'Faust' at Palm Beach Opera,


There was a time -- in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- when Charles Gounod's 1859 opera Faust was so popular that New York's Metropolitan Opera was often referred to as the Faustspielhaus. Opera lovers' changing tastes and the lack of world class French singers (since World War 2) has resulted in less frequent performances of Gounod's most popular opera and French operatic repertoire in general. Gounod's librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre turned Goethe's philosophical tragedy into a typical French romantic opera. Yet Gounod was an inspired melodist. When his music is performed with conviction, vocal beauty, and idiomatic French style Faust can still provide an engrossing evening of musical theater. The recent production by the Palm Beach Opera (seen on 25 February 2005 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA) had enough musico-dramatic elements right to deliver a memorable evening of Romantic opera.

The distinguished American artist Earl Staley designed a production that had the picturesque detail of a Bruegel painting. Atmospheric scenes of village life alternated with the sparse interiors of the church scene and Marguerite's prison cell. Bernard Uzan's staging was intelligent and strongly motivated by the music. It was a pleasure to view Uzan and Staley's lucid theatrical view of this work (which has been treated to so many modernistic productions).

Conductor Richard Buckley led an energetic, vibrant performance. Drawing colorful and expressive playing from an orchestra that included the former concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony and members of the Empire Brass, Buckley imbued the score with a wonderfully idiomatic sense of French style. Music that often sounds shopworn was given new life. The strong choral singing had power and depth. Buckley's musical edition omitted the Prelude and ballet music but included a rarely heard scene for Marguerite and Siebel at the commencement of Act 3. Marguerite's plaintive aria is very beautiful and this lovely episode deserves more frequent performance.

Veronica Villaroel in the Palm Beach Opera production of Gounod's Faust
Veronica Villaroel in the Palm Beach Opera production of Gounod's Faust

The elegant lyric tenor Jianyi Zhang in the title role dominated the proceedings. Although a stiff and clumsy actor, Zhang's soaring voice caressed Gounod's phrases with dulcet beauty. His velvety soft tones floated beautifully through the large house while high notes were clear and ringing (without strain). Zhang's stylish musicality and impeccable technique were a joy to behold. Has anyone sung the role of Faust this splendidly since Nicolai Gedda?

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Copyright © 26 March 2005 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA


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