Friday night's season-ending staging of Charles Gounod’s “Faust” by the New Orleans Opera Association was a triumph. The singing, acting, conducting, orchestral playing and nearly all of the staging were first-rate and riveting — enough to hold the less-than-capacity audience’s attention for three hours.
Whether by design or coincidence, this “Faust” is a showcase for homegrown talent. The singers taking five of the seven name roles have an area connection, including two of the three leading roles. Tenor Paul Groves, a native of Lake Charles, stars in the title role opposite local soprano Sarah Jane McMahon as Faust's beloved, Marguerite.
Other locals in supporting roles include mezzo-soprano Lisa LaFleur in the trouser role of Siebel; soprano Phyllis Treigle as Marthe, Marguerite’s guardian; and baritone Spencer Reichman as Wagner.
Reprising the role he sang here 10 seasons ago, Groves was once again in strong, plaintive voice as the aged scholar who gets his wish to be young again for a few months, albeit at the price of his soul. His arias and duets with McMahon rang out with convincing ardor and a desire to enjoy the final chapter of a life we are led to believe was not a happy one in his youthful years.
His opening monologue, “Rien! En vain j'interroge” (Nothing! In vain I question), set the stage for more vocal dexterity to come.
McMahon was, as in many other operas, perfectly cast as the naïve, innocent girl in love with an unworthy man (e.g., Micaela in “Carmen,” Gilda in “Rigoletto,” Violetta in “La Traviata” and others). She sang her lines with such emotional fervor that the audience couldn’t help but be on her side throughout the entire piece. Her joyful rendering of “The Jewel Song” melted the heart.
Raymond Aceto, as the dapper and conniving villain, Mephistopheles, has the deep, dark, ominous bass voice the role calls for. His Satan is not the stereotypical devil with horns and tail, but a well-dressed, well-mannered gentleman out to seal a business deal with a client. Only when he is alone onstage letting out a sinister, triumphant laugh do we see his true self.
Baritone Weston Hurt, as Valentin, Marguerite’s overprotective brother, was as convincing in his role as his other onstage counterparts. Sacrificing his life to defend her honor, he tugged at the audience’s heartstrings, even when he was dying and cursing Marguerite for the sin she committed during his absence on the battlefront.
LaFleur made the most of her limited solo opportunities as Siebel, a lovestruck young man who pursues Marguerite in vain, especially in the touching floral bouquet aria that opens Act III.
Treigle playfully delivered some of the opera’s most humorous moments as a new widow who falls for the charms of the disguised Mephistopheles. Reichman, in a small role, showed that he is worthy of being given larger parts in the future.
The New Orleans Opera Chorus, under the always spot-on direction of Carol Rausch, shone in some of the most memorable moments in the piece, including the famous “Soldiers’ Chorus” and the lively Act II drinking and dancing scene.
The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Robert Lyall, was in strong form throughout.
On the down side, this viewer felt a sense of nostalgia for the old set that the local company used for more than 30 years, depicting Marguerite’s simple, rustic house and garden. The visual set pieces in this new production did not convey that same ambiance and sense of homey familiarity. However, Ryan McGettigan's basically unit set allowed the three final scenes to flow together almost without pause in a most effective way.
The onstage action, directed by E. Loren Meeker, moved along convincingly until almost the end. However, in the final prison scene, instead of helplessly standing by and watching the dying Marguerite ascend to heaven, as called for in the libretto, Faust was roughly shoved offstage by his tormentor before her ascent. End of story.
Today’s final performance starts at 2:30 p.m. at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. Optional brunches are offered in two sittings on the theater’s mezzanine level beforehand.
An opera in five acts by Charles Gounod, presented by the New Orleans Opera Association
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, 1419 Basin St. (Louis Armstrong Park), New Orleans
INFO: (504) 529-3000; neworleansopera.org