“Faust” at the Minnesota Opera

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Though Gounod’s Faust is one of the 20 most performed operas in the United States, a full production of the work is not often staged. With elaborate sets and costuming and the ballet of Act V, houses often truncate the opera or stage minimalist productions to manage expenses. We have the enormous pleasure of the Minnesota Opera’s full staging of Faust and the breathtaking choreography of Doug Varone.

From the orchestra’s first tuning to the falling curtain, the Minnesota Opera’s production is gorgeously produced, fantastically acted, and expertly sung. Paul Groves, as Faust, is credible as both the jaded aging philosopher and the hesitating young suitor. Winner of the Richard Tucker Foundation Award, the tenor has presented his Bel Canto repertoire at La Scala, the Opera National de Paris and the Met. We’re fortunate to finally get to hear his interpretation of Faust. His rich voice handles both the suicidal Rien! En vain j’interroge of Act I and the Act V love duet Oui, c’est toi que j’aime deftly.

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As Mephistopheles, Kyle Ketelsen strikes a compelling balance of menace and humor. Served by wonderfully creepy minions, his devil steals every scene. With roguishly cocked top hat and twirling cane, he taunts the villagers with Le veau d’or in Act I, both wooing and cursing them at once. He munches on a bible, conjures a gold jewelry box and sings a mocking burlesque.

The part of Siebel, Faust’s student and courter of Marguerite, is sung by Nicole Percifield. Siebel is what is often called a “pants-role”: a male character written as a mezzo-soprano, soprano, or contralto. Until the early nineteenth century, these parts were sometimes handled by castrati. After the reunification of Italy in 1870, castration for musical purposes was made officially illegal (there was a rumor, long proved false, that another castrato was sequestered in the Vatican for the personal delectation of the Pope until as recently as 1959). Percifield, with hair pulled up under a wool cap, runs elegantly to the high C of the young would-be lover.

Soprano Judith Howarth has toured with Placido Domingo and been conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Her Marguerite is another treat in this production, developing into a compelling lost soul in search of redemption by the last act. Her shunning of Mephistopheles through Anges purs, anges radieux is lovely and heartbreaking.

Artistic Director Dale Johnson wrenches Mephistopheles’ hell into debauched brilliance in Act V. The costuming is stunning, ensuring that Walpurgis Night is an enticingly twisted celebration. There is something both Marilyn Manson and Caligula in the staging of this revelry, the costumes grotesque and beguiling.

Appreciation of this opera is decidedly not confined to opera lovers—though the aficionados should be pleased. Varone’s choreography throughout extends the story. Jane Cox and Andromache Chalfant’s lighting and set design provides the perfect framework for the performance and the melodrama of the libretto. Over the years, I’ve attended many of the Minnesota Opera’s productions; in a solid recent history of wonderful stagings, this year’s Faust stands out as one of the two or three best things I’ve seen there.

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