Charles Gounod’s FAUST

Dates and Venue April 27 & May 2, 2019 at 7:30pm; May 5, 2019 at 2pm | Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Conductor Jonathan Darlington Director Francois Racine Chorus Director Kinza Tyrrell Lighting Design Gerald King Scenic Design Olivier Landreville Costume Design Dominique Guindon

Faust David Pomeroy Marguerite Simone Osborne Méphistophélès Robert Pomakov Wagner Scott Rumble
Valentin Peter Barrett Siébel Mireille Lebel Marthe Schwerlein Emilia Boteva

Sung in French with English SURTITLES TM

Reviewer Erin Jane

Vancouver Opera’s third annual festival features two beloved opera classics under the theme of Fairy Tales and Fables. Gounod’s French masterpiece Faust will be playing three nights while Rossini’s La Cenerentola is offering an extended nine performance run.

Charles Gounod’s version of Faust, originally performed in 1859 Paris to a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, has few of the existential themes of the equally renown tragic play by Goethe, and favours a much more melodramatic story. It’s the male-centric Woody Allen film of 19th century French opera (albeit with far less subtle subjugation and mistreatment of vulnerable young women). The story begins as Faust, an aging man facing loveless death, meets Méphistophélès, who offers his services and renewed youth in exchange for Faust’s soul, and thrown into the bargain is Marguerite – an innocent and beautiful young girl, with whom Faust falls in love and in doing so inadvertently sentences her to a seemingly over-the-top cruel fate of her own.

Marguerite has arguably the most dramatic and demanding role, with plenty of stage time and more character transformation than any other part. She is at first the very symbol of beauty, youth, and modesty. But as she allows herself to be seduced first by Méphistophélès’ jewels and then by Faust himself, she becomes an abandoned outcast, eventually cursed and damned by her own brother. The final act sees her post-infanticide, in a state of psychosis, and awaiting execution – certainly the “rock bottom” of her character arc. As Marguerite, Simone Osborne has a vulnerability that is made for this role, and her sweeping soprano is dramatic perfection.

This is a tight-knit cast of only seven principal characters, but each one shines in their role with impressive aplomb. Canadian tenor David Pomeroy (who is no newcomer and has sung the title role of Faust multiple times before) disappears into the role seamlessly and his voice carries the part well especially in the higher register. Toronto native Robert Pomakov makes his Vancouver Opera debut as Méphistophélès, and his rich bass voice brings massive depth to his part, at times more demonic and other times whimsical. But there are moments where Pomakov lends his character more sensitivity and kindness (in particular towards Marguerite) than Faust or even Marguerite’s angry and ashamed brother Valentin, sung with bravado by baritone Peter Barrett.

Faust’s classic set design towers above in forebodingly tall and imposing wardrobe-like structures, which move together and apart to reveal various settings: a tavern, a town square, a prison. They are as “larger than life” as the opera itself, and create shadows that hide the darker elements of the story – that of judgement, madness, despair, and ambiguous redemption. Director Francois Racine plants these ideas deep into the performance and they emerge throughout with the help of the incredibly talented Vancouver Opera Orchestra as well as the Vancouver Opera Chorus as students, soldiers, villagers, angels, and demons.

Maestro Jonathan Darlington conducts in this richly musical performance, with notably some deeply dramatic organ features during the cathedral scene and the finale, as well as some beautiful parts that present delicate stringed high notes and urgent rushing and rising throughout climactic parts. A military march in Act 4 (Deposons les armes and Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux) was sung very quietly and could have been bolder, as it is a march and a soldier’s chorus after all, but did not detract from the orchestra’s overall prominence in supporting the mythical story of Faust.
In the end, Faust teaches us that time really is our most precious resource, a truth we do not fully understand often until we are older. With a running time of just over three hours, consider the Vancouver Opera Festival time well spent.

© 2019 Erin Jane