By Lawrence Budmen

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 February 25, 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.

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? 

The Russian American bass-baritone Mikhail Svetlov was a riveting Mephistopheles. Although he does not possess the low bass tones of such famous devils as Ezio Pinza, Nicolai Ghiaurov, or Samuel Ramey, Svetlov's warm, resonant voice and superior musicianship continually held the spotlight whenever he was on stage. Dramatically he was a lively, characterful Mephisto rather than the usual sinister villain.

Soprano Veronica Villarroel was an attractive, magnetic Marguerite. (She was a replacement for the ailing Ana Maria Martinez.) Villarroel clearly understands Gounod's rapturous vocal writing. Unfortunately her once impressive upper register is now harsh and unsteady. Her coloratura in the Jewel Song was hit or miss - the note values often approximated. (The New York critics had commented on her unreliable high notes during her recent run of "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan.) There was little chemistry between Zhang and Villarroel. Villarroel rose to a stirring final trio and brought surprising dramatic power to the church scene. 

Hyung Yun revealed a strongly resonant baritone and dashing stage presence as Valentin. (Yun was a last minute replacement for the indisposed Guido LeBron.) Although her basic vocal quality is attractive Kathryn Friest often sounded coarse and ugly in the upper register. Too much head voice, perhaps? She made Siebel a touching figure - Marguerite's only real friend in a repressive society. Susan Nicely was a perky Marthe with a lovely mezzo-soprano voice and smooth, unforced vocal production. 

When sung and played with conviction Gounod's opera can still provide an exciting evening of lyric theater. Jianyi Zhang's clarion tenor and Richard Buckley's compelling conducting turned the Palm Beach Opera version of "Faust" into an often memorable traversal of a great French opera! 

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