Review: Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last – Hymel, Pérez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011

No Gounod opera (and a disproportionately low number of French works in general) was performed in the first 54 seasons of the Santa Fe Opera’s acclaimed Summer Festivals. The 2011 festival (the 55th) opened with a new production of “Faust”, which restored virtually all of the cuts made to the world’s second most popular (after Bizet’s “Carmen)  French opera.The restorations included the Walpurgis Nacht scene, including its famous ballet – often heard but seldom seen in its proper context.

The French Connections

The conductor for the evening was the Parisian Frederic Chaslin, newly installed as the Chief Conductor of the Santa Fe Opera. Chaslin, who makes his home on a houseboat on the Seine, seems destined to emerge as a leading champion for the French repertory in the American West. He, himself, is an operatic composer, whose “Wuthering Heights” incorporates the soaring melodies of the Romantic style.

Chaslin approached Gounod’s opera, very loosely based on an episode from Goethe’s epic poem, with reverence, conjuring from the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra a sound that would lead one to believe that they had been performing the work in Paris for the past half century, rather than introducing it to New Mexico this very night.

(One is intrigued by the fact Chaslin recently conducted another Parisian opera based on a Goethe work, Thomas’ “Mignon”, that I saw performed by the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial in 1966, but which has never been seen by most American audiences.)

[Below: Frederic Chaslin at a news conference announcing his appointment as Chief Conductor; edited image of a photograph, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.]

Even though Chaslin’s Santa Fe Opera debut in July, 2009 was conducting Verdi’s “La Traviata”, this Italian opera on a French theme was the occasion for the role debut as Violetta of French soprano Natalie Dessay. With her husband Laurent Naouri cast as the Elder Germont and the new production from the French team of Laurent Pelly and Chantal Thomas, it seemed as much a French as an Italian experience. [See my review at: Dessay’s Scintillating Role Debut as Violetta in Pelly’s Imaginative Santa Fe “Traviata” – July 3, 2009.]

The Suspect Case Against French Opera

The prejudices against French opera are to a considerable extent based on certain expectations of operatic composers by 19th century Paris Opera managements, including the incorporation of ballet and “spectacular” scenes.  In reaction, there evolved schools of critics, some influenced by Wagner’s theories of music drama, a few jingoisticly anti-French, that taught that  the purpose of opera is to create a particular type of drama enhanced by a particular type of music unencumbered by irrelevant spectacle or dance.

Such critics over the decades have had little patience with the managements who mount those French works that would have met the requirement of the Paris Opera. In response, some opera company managements, not wishing to see their expensive productions trashed by critical scorn, simply never schedule most French works, and, if they do, will save money by cutting the ballets and much of the “spectacle”.

But neither of the two most popular French operas, “Faust” and “Carmen”, were written for the Paris Opera. In the case of “Faust”, the Walpurgis Nacht scene with its ballet was added several years later for its debut at the big house. (The ballet was probably not even composed by Gounod, but by Leo Delibes, the composer of the opera “Lakme” and the ballet “Coppelia”. That’s hardly a problem. Gounod’s contemporary, Peter Tchaikovsky, regarded Delibes as a superb composer.)

Thus, most production designers and conductors have chosen to eliminate the ballet, and usually also the remaining part of the Walpurgis Nacht scene. In fact, a 20th century production more often than not eliminated the entire Walpurgis Nacht, and, as well, a couple of scenes involving Marguerite, Siebel and Valentin that relate to Marguerite’s pregnancy, now routinely performed in 21st century productions.

Embracing Dance and Spectacle in French Opera

The Santa Fe Opera, that often will present an opera with minimalist staging, welcomed “Faust” into its performance history with a truly exotic, often witty, production, that was never embarrassed to employ spectacle.

The new production was the responsibility of the brilliant team of Stage Director Stephen Lawless, Set Designer Benoit Dugardyn and Choreographer Nicola Bowie, no strangers to presenting operas steeped in surreality. I suspect that any devotee of “Faust” (and my personal devotion to the work is a matter of record – see, for example, The Devil’s Details Part II: Thoughts on Gounod’s “Faust”) might find some detail in their conception with which to quibble, but the overall effect is astonishing.

The action was shifted to sometime after 1893, when the first Ferris Wheel was constructed for the Chicago World’s Fair, because a large multi-colored wheel revolves in the background during the kermesse scene. Late Victorian civilian dress, military uniforms with the iconic spiked helmets, nurse uniforms and hospital beds evoked a fin de siecle time period.

The unit set draws on the idea of the bookish old Faust in his library. We have stacks of books, in the sense of a library’s “stacks” of bookshelves, and, in the first scene and occasionally thereafter, piles of books in center stage.

There are two “Faust” scenes that particularly lend themselves to spectacle – the kermesse (nominally, a parish church fair) and the Walpurgis Nacht. In both, the imaginations of Lawless, Dugardyn and Bowie have run free, but the products of their imaginations are tied together by an essential structure.

Throughout several scenes of the production, there are glass cases that are wheeled from between the shelves of books. Sometimes these glass cases are important to the spectacle. In a couple of instances, they are for dramatic effect, moving the plot forward. What they contain in each of the different scenes in which they appear is described below.

This iconoclastic team demonstrates that this work, that some curmudgeonly critics regard as “old hat” and unworthy of an audience’s or at least a critic’s attention, is an inexhaustible fount of inspiration for the facile, inventive stage director determined to take the opera seriously.

Notes on the Vocal Performances

As eyecatching and  highly theatrical a “Faust” production might be, a satisfactory “Faust” requires great voices. Here the lovers Faust and Marguerite, sensitively played by Brian Hymel and Ailyn Pérez, provided waves of emotionally delivered, beautiful sound, with all the requisite power when needed.

[Below: the aged Faust (Bryan Hymel, right) contemplates suicide, but decides to summon Satan (Mark S. Doss, left) instead; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

They were joined by a well sung Mephistopheles by Mark S. Doss. He is presented as the dangerous being, with the occasional light-heartedness that most Mephistoes seem to exude at proper moments, but incomparably sinister and inherently evil in the Church Scene.

Connecticut baritone Matthew Worth, with impressive and heartfelt singing, was Marguerite’s brother Valentin.

Valentin is portrayed as a regimental chaplain, and the action is staged in ways that add new layers of psychological meaning to Marguerite’s medallion. All of the fair’s activities freeze, with only Worth’s Valentin moving as he sings Avant de quitter ces lieux. We focus on the religious significance of the words of Chaplain Valentin’s aria.

[Below: Valentin (Matthew Worth) prays that God will look after his sister while he is with the regiment at war; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The staging reveals the initial reluctance of a man of the cloth to be goaded into the fatal swordfight with Faust, and sets in motion the production’s denouement in which Faust is overcome with regret for the succession of damnable deeds into which Mephistopheles has led him.

Gounod, who did what he needed to do to make the opera a success, composed Valentin’s prayer several years later for a star baritone in the opera’s London premiere. He never liked the interpolation of the aria. But since Gounod, in his youth, was himself attracted to the priesthood and was organist for a missionary order in Paris, I believe it might be possible that this production’s concept of Valentin as a chaplain would have reconciled Gounod to this addition to his original work.

[Below: Charles Gounod in the uniform of the missionary order for which he worked as a youth; resized image of a historical photograph.]

Mephistopheles, in this production, is at the center of everything. Mark S. Doss’ attractive bass-baritone voice shone in Mephisto’s lyrical passages. But this is no basso cantante role, where one stands and emits long lines of gorgeous sound. Instead, it abounds in the herky-jerky “devil’s gallop” passages like the Calf of Gold aria and the passages leading up to the final trio, as well as his mocking laughter in the Garden scene, and throughout his Serenade.

The part of Mephisto needs a singing actor, and here Doss easily earned his paycheck. He unexpectedly appears extra-textually in several scenes, always looking for a way to worsen a bad situation, while positioning his hat in a way that makes him invisible to the other characters onstage with him.

He does not rely solely on magic, however. He dons himself in surgical gear and injects Faust with the medicine that appears to restore his youth (reminding us of another character to be seen this Santa Fe Opera season, the Doctor whose experiments on the title role in Berg’s “Wozzeck” mentally unbalances that soldier).

Although dapper in most scenes, Doss’ Mephisto often appears dressed as the Devil himself, as he does when singing the Veau d’or aria, riding on a carousel figure of a calf of gold. During this episode, others attending the fair ride up and down on carousel horses.

[Below: Mephistopheles (Mark S. Doss) rides a carousel calf of gold as a magic ferris wheel turns in the background; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Hymel’s Faust and Perez’ Marguerite

“Faust” premiered in Paris in 1859 and, after a couple of years of Parisian audiences adjusting to what they heard and saw, became a runaway hit. Nothing like the eroticism of the Garden Scene had ever before been seen on the operatic stage, and throughout the ensuing century and a half has always had the power to move audiences.

Both Faust and Marguerite are lyrical parts, and can be sung in rather a bel canto style by light-lyric voices. Yet, the emotional content of the Garden Scene and what follows, romantic love, intoxicated lust, the consequences of unprotected sex, Marguerite’s emotional despair and suicidal thoughts and (especially in this production) Faust’s guilt and regret, provides the rationale for a dramatic approach to the singing.

[Below: Marguerite (Ailyn Pérez, left), picking the petals of a flower finds that “he, Faust (Bryan Hymel, right) loves me”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Hymel, who never betrays the roles’s lyrical roots, brings to it at critical points the emotional heft of a dramatic tenor, as if his Faust is channeling the powerful despair of Don Jose in the final scene of Bizet’s “Carmen”.  Hearing a large voiced lyric tenor like Hymel in this role will have special significance to those love this opera (and should be revelatory to those who do not).

Perez has both the peerless legato for the Roi de Thule aria and the coloratura fireworks for the Jewel Song (climbing in and out of one of large display cases that are a running theme of this production, here containing Satan’s bijouterie).

With the requisite lyric coloratura voice to slam-dunk the role of Marguerite, she also has the power to bring dramatic emphasis to the horrors of the church scene. Here, holding her infant child that is the result of the nuit d’amour, she enters another display case, this a confessional in which the faux-priest to whom she confesses is none other than Satan himself.

Some directors these days say that American opera singers have the acting skills to perform any kind of stagecraft. Perez was called upon to enter and exit on roller skates in the fair scene and to operate a treadle sewing machine during the Vision of Marguerite in Old Faust’s study and in the scene of the spinning aria. (My wife, who knows her textiles, confirmed that Perez employed the correct technique for pushing cloth into this ancient sewing device.)

Holloway’s Siebel

It is now the norm in 21st century productions to expand Siebel’s role to include the second Siebel aria, in which he pledges his support of Marguerite, the woman he loves, even knowing she continues to love the man who abandoned her to public humiliation. Also restored is the tense scene in which Siebel tries to discourage Valentin, returned from war, from seeking out Marguerite.

Holloway, who has been impressive in every role I’ve seen her perform, brought vocal power, sensitivity and beautiful singing to this role, made more interesting when presented without the role being cut in half.

[Below: Siebel (Jennifer Holloway, right) pledges that he will continue to stand by the disgraced Marguerite (left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Gounod’s “Faust” as Music Drama

Stephen Lawless is one of the truly innovative stage directors. Too often a modern opera stage director seems to give up on the “show pieces”, such as the soldiers’ choruses in “Faust” and Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. (The most extreme example of giving up is Patrick Kinmonth’s current production of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” where he simply closes the curtains for the third act Bacchanale and has the orchestra play it as a symphonic interlude. See my review at The Singing’s Erste Klasse, but Railroad-Themed “Samson et Dalila” Production Ends in Train Wreck – Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 29, 2011.)

A student of “Faust” will appreciate how often Lawless solves the riddles of how to present such a showpiece in a way that is dramatically interesting. Over the past couple of decades, some stage directors have staged ceremonies for the wounded and dead as an ironical comment on the soldiers’ song about the glories of war. Instead, in this production, racks containing the uniforms and helmets of the soldiers are pushed onstage and the soldiers don their military dress uniforms as they sing the chorus. It worked!

Wounded soldiers do appear in hospital beds (as does Doss’ Satan, just prior to his Serenade), but the hospital beds provide the dramatic focus for a reluctant Chaplain Valentin (who removes his clerical collar in preparation) to be goaded into his fight with a reluctant, increasingly despondent Faust. Valentin is dispatched during the fight, not by Faust, but by a knife to the back from you-know-who. Valentin’s resulting curse of Marguerite in Lawless’ staging transcends the usually effective dramatic scene, to produce an even more chilling theatrical effect.

[Below: the dying Valentin (Matthew Worth, left, lying on the hospital bed), held by Siebel (Jennifer Holloway) curses Marguerite (Ailyn Pérez, front center; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

However, the most spectacular idea of the Lawless-Dugardyn-Bowie team is the restoration of the Walpurgis Scene with the Faust ballet. Six display cases return, each containing a femme fatale. Gounod (and Goethe) specified Helen of Troy, and she is here, but with her are the title characters of Bizet’s “Carmen”, Massenet’s “Manon” and “Cleopatre”, and Richard Strauss’ “Salome”, as well as Dalila from Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”. Each is portrayed by a ballerina, who moves within her display case until coaxed out by ballet music that suits her taste.

Then, as Mephistopheles tries to distract Faust from his increasing guilt for what he has done to Marguerite, the Faust ballet music begins, the ballerinas portraying each of the femmes step out of their display cases – first Helen of Troy, then Carmen (to the ballet’s tarantella), then the others in turn.

[Below: Faust (Brian Hymel, center, on table), under the influence of Mephistopheles (Mark S. Doss, second from left in red mask), becomes involved in the ballerinas who portray such femmes fatales of history and opera as Cleopatra (front center), Manon (right), Dalila (left), Salome, Carmen and Helen of Troy (not shown); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The addition of the Walpurgis Nacht and, especially this ballet (which is analogous in a way to Prince Calaf’s intention not to be dissuaded from his pursuit of the woman he desires in Puccini’s “Turandot”) sets up, probably as no one ever expected, the final scene.

In any new staging of Faust, the stage director must answer the question: does Faust go to hell or to heaven? In my reviews cited below, there are examples of each. Marguerite, of course, through her prayers and the intercession of the angels, earns her place in heaven. Everyone agrees that this is the point of Gounod’s opera.

But if Faust is to be accepted into heaven, his callous behavior towards Marguerite must be mitigated, as stage director Frank Corsaro did, using his powerlessness under the intoxication and magic spells that Mephisto inflicted upon him, so as to allow the angels to forgive Faust as well. After all, the devil made him do it!

Lawless’ Young Faust is obviously contrite and his reconciliation with Marguerite, whose suicide he has interrupted, is sincere.

[Below: Faust (Bryan Hymel, right) arrives at the coffin prepared for Marguerite (Ailyn Pérez, left) in time to prevent her suicide; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Most stage directors do the right thing and condemn Faust to hell (an idea that apparently first occurred to Hector Berlioz, who, started the trend in the libretto he himself wrote for his opera “Le Damnation de Faust”). But we should always “expect the unexpected” from Lawless. Marguerite is in heaven. Faust is transformed again into Old Faust and is slumped in limbo over Marguerite’s coffin, with Mephistopheles walking offstage.

Lawless and his team obviously have challenged all stage directors to take virtually every line of Jules Barbier’s libretto and virtually every note of Gounod’s score seriously, and to demonstrate how it is possible to use everything to make a evening that is a rewarding, insightful theatrical experience. Chaslin, the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, the chorus of Affiliated Artists, and the superb cast of principals, have proved that this opera is an unbroken string of musical treasures, that, intelligently done, is theatrical and dramatic, as well as spectacular.

Even appreciating the wonderful productions of other operas that Santa Fe Opera has given us, I would have no problem, after their first ever try at “Faust”, of this New Mexico company becoming the world center for French opera performance, and doing nothing else but French opera in future seasons.

For my review of a production in which Faust goes to heaven, see: Lyric Opera Revives Inventive Corsaro-Perdziola “Faust”: Chicago November 3, 2009.

For my review of productions in which Faust goes to hell, see: Costello, Pérez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011, and,

Toby Spence Stars in Des McAnuff’s Rousing ENO Production of Gounod’s “Faust” – London, October 14, 2010, and,

A Second Look: A Visually, Aurally Praiseworthy “Faust” at San Francisco Opera – June 20, 2010, and also,

Racette Ravishing, Relyea Riveting in San Francisco “Faust” – June 5, 2010, and also,

A “Faust” Surprise in Houston – January 23, 2007.

For my other reviews of productions by Stephen Lawless and Benoit Dugardyn together, see: Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Beautifully Sung “Anna Bolena” Completes Dallas Opera’s Tudor Trilogy – November 14, 2010, and also,

The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010, and also,

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

Nicely Done “Il Trovatore” in Verdi-Friendly San Diego – April 4, 2007.

For my reviews of other productions by Stephen Lawless, see: World Treasure: a Stunning Dallas Opera Revival of Tarkovsky’s Classic, Insightful “Boris Godunov” – April 1, 2011, and also,

Los Angeles Opera’s Magic Potion: Nino Machaidze in “L’Elisir d’Amore” – September 12, 2009, and also,

Dimitri Pittas a Sparkler in Lawless’ Deft “L’Elisir d’Amore” – Santa Fe July 4, 2009.