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Friday, May 01, 2020

The Devil You Say

From the Vault Dept.: O, how I took for granted the tours that came through the nearby towns! Even before the performing arts ground to a halt, the greater Albany, NY, area stopped welcoming tours of anything but pop-culture highlights, with a few chamber-music and jazz concerts tucked into cultural hidey-holes. Perhaps I should have been less grumpy about this “Faust,” but I’m going to say that the Devil made me do it.


THERE’S ALWAYS A TANG OF DEVILISHNESS about self-indulgent pleasure, and no legend better serves that sense than that of Faust and his bargain with Mephistopheles.

Charles Gounod
The New York City Opera National Company appeared at Proctor’s Saturday night with a production of Charles Gounod’s opera of the legend according to Goethe in an exciting performance that just fell short of the kind of excellence we’ve grown to expect from this group.

That’s the problem with setting standards so high – anything less than perfect becomes a disappointment. But there certainly was no lack of talent or innovation. The sets, by Peter Dean Beck, suggested Gounod’s obsession with Catholicism by using a vast, vaulted corridor to serve with various backdrops as tavern, garden, and prison.

The cast was headed by Keith Olsen as Faust and Randi Marrazzo as Marguerite, the woman he loves and spurns. They have the youthful good looks that you miss in some of the more seasoned stars, but neither had the riveting presence that leads to stardom. Craig Heath Nirn, as  Mephistopheles, has a wonderfully evil presence and rich, deep voice, but he didn’t seem always to be in control of his singing.

Among the soloists, Kathleen Segar was outstanding as Siebel, young wooer of Marguerite. She combined a good voice with a lot of energy to create a very credible character. Unfortunately, her costume made her look a little too much like Barbra Streisand in “Yentl.” She never even began to convince me that there was anything but a woman under all that garb.

Nicholas Muni directed the production with some excellent movement and characterization. Particularly compelling was a scene that brought a company of soldiers home to their waiting women, who found the men distressingly changed. And all of that was suggested without any text.

Grand opera needs a grand orchestra. The 28 pieces played extremely well under George Manahan’s direction, but they failed to come up with a tear-your-heart-out romantic sound.
Perhaps a touring company should tuck some smaller, less-familiar works into its repertory. We may be in danger of getting Fausted and Carmened to death.

The New York City Opera is to be commended, but not too strongly, for its use of subtitles (or supertitles, really, displayed above the stage). Better might be a system giving us the original text alongside its translation – that’s the luxury a record-set libretto provides. Best of all might be to throw off the shackles of tired convention and commission some new translations and let us bear the works in English.

– Schenectady Gazette, 15 October 1985

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