Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Costello, Pérez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011

April 24th, 2011

The San Diego Opera, which last year brought together the husband and wife team of Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez in an elegant production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” (see Costello, Pérez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010), triumphantly presented their return as Faust and Marguerite in “Faust”, Gounod’s blockbuster hit opera from a century and a half ago, that remains one of the two most performed of French operas.

With impressive performances from Greer Grimsley as Mephistopheles and Brian Mulligan as Valentin, it assured levels of singing and acting that would be difficult to surpass in any opera house in the world.

Costello’s Faust

Costello, at 29 has emerged as a first rank lyric tenor, who is laying claim to the Donizetti tenor repertory as well as to the rich heritage of French opera. Technically secure and stylish throughout its range, as his voice matures it is growing in size and power. He is fully in command of this role, excelling in Faust’s first scene soliloquy and in the great cavatine Salut, demeure chaste et pure. He was memorable also in the famous ensembles, notably the final trio with Perez and Grimsley.

[Below: Faust (Stephen Costello) admires this new youthful appearance; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

A good actor with impressive stage presence, he brings an athleticism to the role that was exemplified in a rough and tumble swordfight with Mulligan’s Valentin.

Pérez‘ Marguerite

Ailyn Pérez, a lyric soprano accomplished in coloratura singing, demonstrated power, control and vulnerability in the spinning scene (banished from most productions of “Faust” for over a century, but now almost always performed).

[Below: Marguerite (Ailyn Pérez) is infatuated with the gentleman who spoke to her at the Kermesse; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Pérez was affecting in the passages about the death of her sister, passionate in the Garden scene, and exhibited genuine terror in the church scene. Now that productions, such as this one, are taking “Faust” seriously, it is clear that the opera is truly about the destructive impact on Marguerite of Faust’s pact with the devil to obtain the power to seduce women.

Faust’s conquest, who is little more than a sex object in the Goethe epic poem from which bits of the opera plot are derived, in the opera is transformed into a particular woman who is part of a family and community. Having a winsome, youthful actress such as Perez in this role permits the audience to realize fully the extent to which Marguerite is the victim of manipulation by the forces of evil, reinforcing the psychological impact of this opera.

Grimsley’s Mephistopheles

American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley has demonstrated mastery of the meaty acting roles from Wagner (see, for example, An Imaginative “Siegfried” Continues Seattle Opera’s Spectacular Cycle – August 12, 2009) Richard Strauss ( see Nadja Michael a Sensation in Luisotti’s Soaring San Francisco “Salome” – October 18, 2009 ) and Puccini (see Grimsley Memorable in San Diego Opera’s Quasi-Traditional “Tosca” – January 27, 2009).

Gounod’s Mephisto role gives him the chance to display a character who can be charming, seductive, humorous and sinister, all the while the literal personification of evil. The role abounds in the jerky, syncopated phrases that deliberately characterize the “devil’s gallop” of folklore, of which the Kermesse scene’s Calf of Gold (Veau d’or) is the most stunning example.

Grimsley shone in the showpieces, such as Serenade. The dark timbre of Grimsley’s voice provided an authoritatively irresistable dark force throughout the Church scene, where his face glowed red in the effective and imaginative lighting design of Michael Whitfield.

[Below: Mephistopheles (Greer Grimsley) casts a spell on the garden to create the nuit d’amour; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Mulligan’s Valentin

Brian Mulligan appeared as Valentin in this production’s San Francisco run (see Racette Ravishing, Relyea Riveting in San Francisco “Faust” – June 5, 2010 and A Second Look: A Visually, Aurally Praiseworthy “Faust” at San Francisco Opera – June 20, 2010.) For San Diego Opera, he stepped into this role at almost the last moment. Even though director David Gately’s complicated stage movements differed substantively from that of Mulligan’s Valentin in San Francisco, he mastered the stage direction in the brief time available, including possibly the most harrowing swordfight between the star tenor and baritone that I’ve every seen.

But it was not just Mulligan’s acting that made his addition to the cast so special. He has emerged as one of the finest young American baritones, with particular facility in the French repertory. His great aria Avant de quitter ces lieux was beautifully sung and received the first (of many) extended ovations of the night, and his death scene made a strong impression.

[Below: Valentin (Brian Mulligan, center) is distressed at the appearance of strangers interested in his sister, as Wagner (Scott Sikon, left) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Castle’s Siebel

Although I had seen New Zealand soprano Sarah Castle at San Diego Opera previously  in the comprimario roles of Lola in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Stephano in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”, for me, her Siebel confirmed that her fine mezzo voice and convincing portrayal of a lovesick adolescent boy presages a career of distinction in the lyric mezzo roles of French and Italian opera.

Cuts in the role of Siebel were almost always made during the 20th century, but now the second aria and two scenes, one with Marguerite and one with Valentin are usually performed, which Castle did with distinction.

Notes on the Production

The admirable sets and costumes, by Robert Perdziola, from Lyric Opera of Chicago,  were used.  I had reported previously on its most recent revival (see Lyric Opera Revives Inventive Corsaro-Perdziola “Faust”: Chicago November 3, 2009) of a 2004 Chicago production. That was designed around the imaginative ideas for staging the opera conceived by director Frank Corsaro and first seen at New York City Opera in an older production.

Although Corsaro staged both the 2004 and 2009 Lyric Opera mountings of the production, last year it was seen in San Francisco, directed by Jose Maria Condemi, who retained some of Corsaro’s ideas, but made substantive changes, particularly in the final scene.

[Below: Mephistopheles (Greer Grimsley, right) counsels Faust (Stephen Costello) in the art of seducing women; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

In the San Diego production, director David Gately again retains many of Corsaro’s ideas (the cadavers in Faust’s study, the statue of Saint Sebastian in the kermesse scene, the magic well in Marguerite’s garden), but, like Condemi, rejects others (e.g., a large cross in the church scene turning upside down). The most significant departures from Corsaro are described in my remarks on the final scene later in this review.

Although this is the first time the Perdziola “Faust” sets and costumes had been seen at San Diego Opera, they were constructed at the San Diego Opera Scenic Studio, actually building the sets for this opera by “repurposing” previous sets. originally built by the Scenic Studio for a co-production of Rossini’s “Tancredi” for Marilyn Horne at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Los Angeles Opera.

[Below: Faust (center left) and Marguerite (center right) sing of their passion for one another, in the spellbound garden; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Thus, this production, which conserves physical resources that some opera managements would simply have discarded in the past, is praiseworthy in itself. Yet, in the creative spirit of Perdziola, with his colorful costumes and brilliant conceptualization for the Garden Scene, the results of this effort to conserve resources led to the creation of a brilliant new physical framework for presenting this opera.

What is especially noteworthy about this Lyric Opera “Faust” is that it also incorporated the Corsaro’s staging from a different production, while providing the opportunity for Condemi in San Francisco and David Gately in San Diego to pick and choose among Corsaro’s ideas, while presenting their own views of what the opera is about.

[Below: Valentin (Brian Mulligan, left) is in a fight to the death with Faust (Stephen Costello, right) although who is to die has already been predicted and determined by Mephistopheles (center background); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Faust Damned, Marguerite Saved

My review is about the production, rather than the story of the opera itself. I have written about the opera elsewhere, and will return to the subject in the future. For those attending the performance, I’ve been honored by the San Diego Opera by having been invited to write the “scholarly essay” for their program, as I did last year for the San Diego Opera performance of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”.

Those reading the essay, however, will note that in Goethe’s epic poems Faust, Parts One and Two, Faust eventually goes to heaven. It was the Parisians of the mid-19th century that (I think appropriately) changed the story so that Faust, who enjoys his nuit d’amour, then abandons the pregnant Marguerite to her fate, ends up in Hell.

Berlioz, who actually sent the early draft of his musical setting to Goethe (but received no reply), wrote the libretto for his opera “The Damnation of Faust”. Building on Berlioz’ ideas, dramatist Michel Carre wrote the play “Faust et Marguerite” that became the basis for Gounod’s “Faust” story, and it is Carre who created all the family and community contexts in which the Gounod Marguerite exists.

Corsaro changed the story back by having Faust’s contract with Mephistopheles burst into flames, as a result of Marguerite’s prayers to the angels in heaven to save her and her lover. Condemi in San Francisco rejected this idea and the contract stayed intact.

Gately restored the idea of the burning contract, but now it seems to be consumed by hellfire, rather than angelic intervention. In Gately’s staging Faust becomes  determined to escape Mephisto’s clutches aggressively and to reunite with Marguerite, but Mephisto overpowers him repeatedly. Faust slides down the steps of the stairway to heaven, tries to climb again, but is finally overpowered and dragged to hell. The effect of Gately’s final scene is staggering.

The opera was authoritatively conducted by Karen Keltner, and Walter Huff the acting chorus director. Javier Velasco was the choreographer. Dale Anthony Girard was the fight director, deserving special kudos for the Valentin-Faust matchup. Jane Bunnell, familiar with this production in its Chicago mounting, again sang the role of Marthe Schwerlein with the comic flair one expects from this part.

After the final trio and exciting end of the performance, the three principals stepped before the curtains to a spontaneous standing ovation from the entire San Diego Opera audience. My recommendation of all able to see one of the remaining performances? Do not turn down any chance to obtain a ticket.

For reviews of other performance by Stephen Costello, see: San Diego’s Solo Celebration of Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier” Centennial – April 3, 2011, and,

Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Beautifully Sung “Anna Bolena” Completes Dallas Opera’s Tudor Trilogy – November 14, 2010, and,

World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010, and,

The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Papian, Costello in Lawless’ Dallas “Devereux” – January 23, 2009.

For reviews of other performances by Greer Grimsley, see: Tristan Tried and True: Clifton Forbis Sells Seattle Opera’s New “Tristan und Isolde” – July 31, 2010, and,

Seattle Opera’s Memorable “Walkuere” Revival – August 10, 2009,and,

Wagner, Wadsworth and Lynch Team for Seattle’s Magical “Rheingold” Revival – August 9, 2009, and,

Forbis, Voigt Brilliant as Lyric’s Tristan and Isolde – Chicago, February 24, 2009, and,

Seductive Denyce Graves Enthralls San Diego in “Samson et Dalila” – February 23, 2007.

For reviews of other performances by Brian Mulligan, see: Domingo’s Swashbuckling, Cinematic San Francisco “Cyrano” – November 6, 2010, and,

“Werther” Re-invented, Yet Again – Francisco Negrin’s New Production at San Francisco Opera, September 15, 2010, and,

German Birds Fly High at Los Angeles Opera in Rarely Seen “The Birds” – April 23, 2009, and,

The Luisotti “Boheme” in San Francisco – November 22, 2008.

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