Opera Warhorses

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Lyric Opera Revives Inventive Corsaro-Perdziola “Faust”: Chicago November 3, 2009

November 6th, 2009

Observances of the sesquicentennial of Gounod’s “Faust” begin this year – the 150th anniversary of the first version of what proved to be a revolutionary opera. To this day more popular than any French opera that preceded it, its influence on both later French and Italian opera was profound. The only French opera that exceeds it in popularity, “Carmen”, was by a younger composer whom Gounod mentored, Georges Bizet.

Lyric Opera, which has thrice thrice mounted the ideas of veteran stage director Frank Corsaro in how to stage this work for contemporary audiences, revived its consummate 2004 production, whose sets and costumes were by Robert Perdziola. Corsaro’s life work was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, as one of the first recipients of the newly established honors for opera.

[Below: Stage Director and National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honoree Frank Corsaro; resized image of a photograph for latimes.com.]

The famous Corsaro ideas about staging “Faust”, that might have seemed quirky to  20th century audiences  (certainly to some critics) have survived repetitive resurrection – cadavers in Faust’s first scene laboratory,  one of whom is Mephistopheles; the conjured wine in the Kermesse bleeding out of the pierced breast of a statue of Saint Sebastian; a large crucifix in the church scene turning upside down as Mephisto denounces Marguerite.

Had these ideas been confined to their association with the antique New York City Opera sets, they may have passed into oblivion with those physical sets, just as the stagecraft inventions of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and others of his generation (and Corsaro’s) seem not to have survived the physical destruction of the sets that showcased them.

But a half-decade ago, Lyric Opera enshrined Corsaro’s conceptualization in a vibrant production by Robert Perdziola, which has proved to be an always eye-catching theatrical experience. The various scenes are  encased in a unit set – a concave walled structure with upper floor boxes on each side of the stage. Constructed by the San Diego Opera Scenic Studios (which also built the Zambello production seen recently at Houston Grand Opera, discussed later in this review), it is a visually striking production.

Each scene uses the interior spaces, sometimes with a stage  balcony attached to the basic set at stage left, permitting the vision of Marguerite in the first scene, or for an industrial supervisor to observe the factory floor on which Marguerite performs the “spinning song” while operating a mechanical loom.

Elsewhere on this website is my review of Francesca Zambello’s ideas on “Faust”, which parallel Corsaro’s with a couple of notable differences. (For the review of a Zambello-influenced production at Houston Grand Opera and a separate essay on “Faust” see this website’s January 2007 archives.)

I think either Zambello’s or Corsaro’s “Faust” can be called “The Story of Marguerite”, both significantly restoring traditional, if lamentable cuts – a conversation between Valentin and Siebel,  Marguerite’s spinning song and Siebel’s aria of consolation, while cutting the more frequently performed Walpurgisnacht scene that has nothing to do with Marguerite or the opera’s central story (and whose ballet may not even have been written by Gounod.)

The Corsaro and Zambello concepts depart in a couple of significant ways. The most important is the question as to whether Faust is, at his core, good or evil. For Zambello he is an arch-fiend who goes with Mephistopheles to Hell as the opera’s final trio ends. For Corsaro, the intercession of Marguerite’s prayers saves him and the document that signifies his contract with Mephistopheles bursts into flames.

The Devil Made Him Do It

Gounod and his brilliant librettist, Jules Barbier, leave enough ambiguity that insightful stage directors could go either way, but once a decision is made, it should affect how the tenor presents the character. Thus, Corsaro’s Faust is a proper gentleman in the garden scene. Joseph Kaiser, playing Faust, looked and acted like he might have stepped out of a Jane Austen romance. But Mephisto employs the trick of enchantment, and Faust is spellbound when he and Marguerite succumb to the eroticism of the magic garden.

In the second encounter between Faust and Valentin, Mephisto has gotten Faust drunk deliberately,  picks a fight with Valentin on Faust’s behalf, so that a yet-again spellbound Faust ends up killing his lover’s brother. (At least one critic could not figure out why Corsaro would present an inebriated Faust, but his drunkenness completes the argument that Faust is a good-at-heart person, whose mental incompetence has been perpetrated by an outside force or forces, just as decisively as was the title character’s in Berg’s “Wozzeck”.)

Notes on the Performance

The conductor for the performance was Sir Andrew Davis, who led the Lyric Opera Orchestra authoritatively. The chorus master was Donald Nally.

The curtain rises on the unit set, crossed by ceiling high draperies, in which Joseph Kaiser is costumed as being decrepit (although certainly Kaiser’s youthful, leggiero voice is not). Kaiser, one of opera’s rising stars – a graduate of the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center young artists program – first attracted international attention through his performance as Tamino in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. (My review of his live performance as Tamino at Los Angeles Opera under James Conlon, who was the conductor for Branagh’s film, may be found in this website’s January 2009 Archives.)

[Below: Joseph Kaiser is Faust; resized image, based on a Dario Acosta photograph.]

Soon we have the Corsaro device of the knock at the door of Faust’s study and the delivery of yet another dead body to Faust’s home office anatomy lab. (This is an extra-textual element, but to me, an inoffensive one.)

When Faust summons Satan, the latter takes the form of a resurrected cadaver – whom we see is bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen. The young American artist, who studied with the great basso Giorgio Tozzi, has performed Mephistopheles at Minnesota Opera and appeared as Escamillo in a San Francisco Opera performance of Bizet’s “Carmen”. My enthusiastic review of his Escamillo (and of the Micaela of Ana Maria Martinez who is this evening’s Marguerite) appears in the December 2006 website archives.

[Below: Kyle Ketelsen, right, is Mephistopheles to Paul Groves’ Faust at Minnesota Opera; edited image of a Michal Daniel photograph for Minnesota Opera.]

Then with a scene-change we are in the midst of a kermesse, one of the annual parish fairs, usually celebrating the anniversary of its church’s founding, that was a tradition of European towns and villages. This particular kermesse is surely associated with the very church in which Marguerite will be taunted by Mephistopheles later in the opera.

I have written in the past how sappy I regard most stagings of Gounod’s kermesse scene that I have seen to date, but I rate the Corsaro/Perdziola scene as truly successful. (Certainly, it generated the most press photographs of any scene in Lyric Opera’s production.) Intelligently staged (and including a fight between the women as vigorous as if we were outside the tobacco factory in Bizet’s “Carmen”), the colorful festivities are joined by Kaiser’s elegantly dressed Faust.

Mephistopeles is in a harlequin costume in a pull-cart covered with a canvas decorated with Bsoch- and Bruegel-like images of the damned. (For those who worry about the simultaneous references to 16th and 19th century time periods, its should we recalled we are not watching a historical documentary.)

[Below: Mephistopheles, dressed as a harlequin, entertains at the Kermesse; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Lucas Meachem confidenly dispatched his great aria Avant de quitter ces lieux with his attractive light baritone, Sir Andrew Davis indulging him the grand opera flourish at aria’s end that assures an audience ovation. (See my two-part interview with Meachem in the “William’s Interviews” categories on this website.)

Then Ketelsen delivered a rousing “Calf of Gold” aria with its famous “devil’s gallop” rhythms, signaling that there is yet another rising star among the rich crop of young American bass-baritones. When wine flows from the breast of Saint Sebastian’s statue, Valentin and his fellow soldiers are convinced that they are dealing with a diabolical force and surround Mephisto raising the crosses at the hilt of their swords.

In Corsaro’s staging of the “Chorale of the Swords”, however, Mephisto listens to their anthem De l’enfer qui vient with amusement, then drives Valentin and the chorus backwards merely by walking towards them. In fact, this village apparently has no defense at all against the dark arts, and soon, as the waltz begins, the villagers are dancing with supernatural choreography.

Faust then introduces himself to the Marguerite of Ana Maria Martinez, whose beautiful, expressive soprano voice continues to delight, but her big scenes are in the following acts. We also meet the teen-age boy, Siebel (played effectively by second year Ryan Center singer Katherine Lerner), who is dismayed at Mephisto’s reading of his palm. Ketelsen’s Mephisto ends the act silhouetted behind a canvas, playing a violin.

[Below: the end of the Kermesse scene; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]

For the next act, center stage is an attractive garden. A statue of the Virgin Mary hovers over a basin of water that is sufficiently holy to reverse Mephisto’s spell on Siebel’s skills at flower arranging, allowing Siebel to leave a bouquet as a gift for Marguerite.

There is a village pump and well at stage right that provides Mephistopheles a portal that he uses to descend to the underworld to obtain the casket of jewels that will trump Siebel’s offering. While he is gone, Kaiser, whose voice has the gleaming timbre that is well-suited to the French repertoire, stylishly performed one of the greatest of French tenor arias, Salut! demeure, chaste et pure.

Nowhere in this Corsaro production is there a medieval spinning wheel, but Marguerite has routine chores anyway. Martinez’ Marguerite sings her song about the King of Thule while pumping water into a bucket, still in girlish reverie about the handsome man who briefly introduced himself to her at the kermesse. Then she discovers Faust’s gift of the casket of jewels.

[Below: Ana Maria Martinez is Marguerite; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Martinez masterfully sang the most famous Gounod soprano aria, Je ris de me voir si belle, brilliantly navigating its coloratura trills and cadenzas. Marguerite’s older companion, Dame Marthe Schwerlein, broadly played by veteran Metropolitan opera character mezzo, Jane Bunnell, assured Marguerite that the jewels indeed must be the gift from the mysterious stranger she met at the fair.

When Faust appears with his friend, Bunnell’s Marthe decides she wishes to be the love interest of the companion of Marguerite’s apparently wealthy friend, creating the opera’s only sustained moments of levity.

But Marthe is not the prey that interests Mephisto. It is the next moment that transformed the course of mid- and late-century French opera and impacted Italian opera as well. When Mephisto weaves a spell to enchant Faust and Marguerite, Gounod conjures a sweet melody for Barbier’s erotic text unlike anything heard in opera before it.

In the hands of theatrical magicians and great singers, Faust’s and Marguerite’s love duet O nuit d’amour, ciel radieux, can still produce goosebumps in the audience. The lush lyricism of Kaiser and Martinez was enshrined by the production team of Corsaro, Perdziola and lighting director Christine Binder (who fills the foliage with blue fiber-optics) in a dazzling, star studded night sky.

The garden scene helped make “Faust” the most popular opera in the world for decades, and unleashed the exotic and erotic melodic talents of Bizet, Leo Delibes, Jules Massenet and Camille Saint-Saens with transalpine echoes in the love duets of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”.

From Here to Eternity

Virtually all productions of “Faust” follow the order of scenes in the two acts described so far, but for the rest of the opera conductors and/or stage directors must choose between alternate routes to get to the final trio and Marguerite’s ascension into heaven. Gounod’s Act III specifies Marguerite’s spinning song and Siebel’s second aria, followed by the scene in the church, then the soldier’s chorus, the duel between Faust and Valentin and the latter’s death. Corsaro observes Gounod’s Act III as written, without cuts.

For more than a century, it was the convention to excise the Marguerite-Siebel section, and go straight to the church scene, then the soldier’s chorus, duel and Valentin’s death. Zambello’s production, however, included all the Act III music, but had the music from the soldier’s chorus through the death of Valentin precede the scene in the church (with Valentin’s casket at center stage). Whether Gounod would have approved, I believe it reinforces the storyline of Marguerite’s mental distress to have the mortally wounded Valentin curse her before she encounters Mephisto in her church, but then I cannot fault a stage director for following the composer’s intentions.

Corsaro’s Act III begins with an image that obviously appeals to him – an obviously pregnant Marguerite on a factory floor handling a mechanical textile loom while a supervisor watches her from above. It provides Martinez with an opportunity to display an increasing hysteria that continues through the church scene and her brother’s death that will ultimately result in her confinement and death sentence for the murder of her infant.

(I can conceive of using Lyric Opera’s production with Zambello’s order of scenes, especially if one eliminates the loom – the words to the spinning song refer to Faust rather than textile production anyway – removing the necessity of another curtain to allow stagehands to take the loom offstage. Then, just as in Zambello’s order of scenes, one simply has the chorus of soldiers march in.)

As stated above, I do applaud the deletion from Act IV of the Walpurgisnacht scene and ballet. I regard its c0mposition as a devil’s bargain whose purpose was to conform the opera to the formulaic expectations of the Opera de Paris, once it was clear that that institution’s standards excluded a great popular hit.

The final scenes

The scene in the church is a Corsaro coup de theatre with a very pregnant Marguerite being tormented by groups of demons dressed in Franciscan robes. One such demon, ascending the stairway to a tall pulpit at center stage, removes the hood from his head. It is Mephistopheles with a cardinal’s cap. It is here that Corsaro’s notorious anticlerical touch occurs, the image of Christ on the crucifix being turned upside down.

In the next scene, the soldiers arrive. Corsaro was early on a proponent of showing wounded and dying men on stretchers and  grieving widows in ironic juxtaposition to the jaunty words of the soldiers’ Gloire immortelle de nos aieux. Meachem’s Valentin has a spurt of mortal energy before dying, chasing Faust and Mephisto offstage. Although a seeming solution to what a stage director should have Valentin do throughout his rather long death scene, this stage business might be reworked by Jose Maria Condemi, the stage director designated to mount this production when it travels to San Francisco in June 2010.

In the final scene, with its long center stage staircase to an upper floor where Marguerite’s execution is to take place, Martinez’ Marguerite is deliriously mad, flailing her arms and clutching a straw-filled blanket that she believes is her dead child. Corsaro’s “good Faust” is geniuinely concerned by her plight and, as she regains sufficient lucidity to pray for her soul and his, the angels forgive the lovers.

Mephistopheles produces his signed contract for Faust’s soul, but the forces of good have gained sufficient strength that the paper bursts into flames and Faust, as well as Marguerite, gain entrance to heaven.

Lyric Opera’s production of “Faust” is invariably interesting and attractive and  honors the masterpiece that Gounod and Barbier created. The quartet of principals in the performance I saw – Kaiser, Martinez, Ketelsen and Meachem – constitute a quartet of vocally and physically attractive North American artists, whose voices nicely fit the French style that Gounod’s operatic works exemplify.

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