The West Bay Opera wrapped up its current season this weekend with an ambitious production of Charles Gounod’s Faust at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. The result was an intense yet enjoyable musical experience that managed to bring to life — in a very satisfying way – Goethe’s timeless story of an aging scientist’s pact with the devil.
The story is set in a dark and dehumanized future time, which emphasizes and complements the title character’s depression and despair. This move away from the traditional early medieval setting allows the company to focus on the main elements of the story, while deemphasizing the religious and moral undertones. In spite of this simplification, the complex production runs over three hours and features several wild twists and turns, especially in the final act. Also, techies will be pleased to note that in the future when you sign your soul over to the devil, you no longer have to deal with that messy signing in blood; a simple finger signature on his tablet will suffice.
Gounod’s music is exceptional for this story, offering a darkness and energy that perfectly sets off the action and that always provides exactly the right note for moving the plot along. The overall dark tone, however, is punctuated by several beautiful lyrical arias that fully express the depth of feeling behind the often fantastical story line.
The company did a superb job of bringing this opera to life. Kevin Thompson, in his second appearance with West Bay Opera, shone in the role of Méphistophélès. With his deep rich bass voice and his stature and presence, he was unquestionably the focal point for the entire production. In addition to his singing, which was exceptional, Thompson’s physical grace and ability to act and emote enabled him to create a character that was both terrifying and playful – setting the tone for the rest of the cast and providing a welcome hint of lightness to his demonic role.
Soprano Elizabeth Zharoff, in her debut with West Bay Opera, was superb in the role of Marguerite, a young maiden who succumbs to Faust’s romantic advances. Her spirited performance of the Jewel Song (“Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir”) was a highlight of Act II and her singing during the prison scene in Act III was beautiful and harrowing.
Two other newcomers to this company were also outstanding. Bernardo Bermudez, in the role of Valentin, Marguerite’s soldier brother, delivered a beautiful haunting solo in his first appearance, bemoaning the fact that he was leaving his sister to go to war. And mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney played a very convincing Siebel, a young man infatuated with Marguerite.
Notable in this production were the set and scenery, including liberal use of dynamic projections to bring to life the various venues, from Faust’s laboratory to Méphistophélès’s hellish empire. This technique was extremely successful in creating scenes of depth and grandeur, especially in the cathedral and prison scenes. The devil’s piece-by-piece destruction of the cathedral was particularly effective. The bright and colorful setting for Marguerite’s garden was so surprisingly beautiful that it elicited spontaneous applause from the audience. The use of projected video, however, was less successful in the first act, where a pastiche of constantly moving and seemingly random images (meant to reflect Faust’s tortured musings) was more distracting than helpful to the story.
Under the baton of director, José Luis Moscovich, the orchestra fully embraced Gounod’s complex score. Clarinetist Art Austin, among others, stood out with several lovely solos.
While this weekend marks the end of West Bay Opera’s current season, there are plans for what will undoubtedly be an excellent 60th anniversary season beginning this fall. There are three productions planned for the 2015-2016 season: Puccini’s Rigoletto in October, Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin in February, and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in May 2016. Tickets go on sale in July. If this past year is any indication, these promise to be both enjoyable and exciting. Consider bringing your kids or grandkids; next season offers three great opportunities to expose them to the wonders of opera. West Bay Opera is a gem in the San Francisco Bay Area music and opera scene.
May 22, 24, 30 & 31, 2015
Faust, James Callon
Marguerite, Elizabeth Zharoff
Méphistophélès, Kevin Thompson
Valentin, Bernardo Bermúdez
Siebel, Molly Mahoney
Wagner, Ryan Bradford
Marthe, Patrice Houston
221 Lambert Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94306
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA 94306
All photos by Otak Jump and used by permission.