The bright young things at Boston Opera Collaborative conjured up another thought-provoking entertainment Friday evening at the Plaza Black Box Theater at Boston Center for the Arts. With Faust et Marguerite, the second offering in the company’s 10th anniversary season, Paul Dorgan and stage director Patricia-Maria Weinmann seek to distill Gounod’s mammoth five-act spectacle down to its essence, resulting in a neat modern-dress chamber opera which succeeds in large part on its own terms.
The condensed score and libretto strip the grand opéra down its bare essentials; gone are the choruses and crowds, the ballet, and all characters save those crucial to plot advancement. We are left with Faust and Méphistofélès, Marguerite and the loyal Seibel, who remains Marguerite’s only friend despite his unsuccessful attempts to win her love. Weinmann notes that these excisions allow the production “to bring the main characters into sharper focus. We get to know them in a way that otherwise we could not.” This is, for the most part, true, though the condensed version is so pared down that we miss out on a few moments of character development present in the original. For example—Faust’s Act I transformation from grizzled scholar to handsome lothario is signaled only by the character’s rising from a wheelchair to assume the posture and attitude of a man in the prime of life. It might have been useful to explore the aged Faust’s anguish at the state of his life and health at the top of Act I, so as to better understand his subsequent deal with the devil. With a brisk 90-minute running time, Faust et Marguerite can afford to restore ten or fifteen minutes to smooth out a few plot points.
This is, however, merely a quibble, as Weinmann and her team have done an admirable job of shrinking a large, sprawling work down to an intimate, compelling, easily digestible evening of music theater. The show features many clever and affecting directorial touches, including the use of Méphistofélès’ Golden Calf song as a prologue, both setting up the action and allowing the devil his thesis statement. A brilliantly affecting moment of theatrical shorthand before the final scene reveals Marguerite’s despondency and growing madness, as she enters carrying a bundle of rags which she, as well as those in the audience not up on their Goethe, believe at first glance to be her living child.”
Thanks to Matthew D’Ordine’s judicious reduction, one rarely felt the absence of Gounod’s full orchestra. Under the direction of Nicholas Pace, the piano and string quartet sustained the action and accompanied the singers with skill, though once or twice the piano popped somewhat obtrusively out of the texture. This production also used an organ effect not listed in the program (presumably played on a synthesizer or sampler) that added an appropriately eerie quality to opera’s church scene.
Though it falls to Méphistofélès to conjure the supernatural forces that govern the plot, it was soprano Emily Michiko Jensen, making her company debut as Marguerite, who brought magic to the proceedings. Jensen is a gifted singing actress blessed with fine theatrical instincts and an unusually well rounded, intriguingly versatile instrument. She proved capable of handling the character’s full emotional range with naturalism and specificity, now coquettish, now vulnerable, at times consumed by genuine terror and despair. Her rolling, butterscotch-gold soprano transitioned seamlessly through the registers, revealing a powerful, bright top, a warm, sweet middle range, and rich low notes. Her reading of the show’s most popular hit tune, “Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir” (the Jewel Song) perfectly encapsulated the merits of her performance as a whole. Her comic hypocrisy was perfectly judged, as Marguerite speaks of her modesty and hesitation at wearing the rich ornaments left at her doorstep, all the while diving into the jewel box with rapacious delight. Her already lovely sound blossomed and unfolded over the course of the piece, building to an electrifying high note. At her weakest, Jensen was merely excellent; at her best, she was superb.
As Méphistofélès, the incongruously named Brian Church brought a P.T. Barnum sensibility to his role, replete with arch humor and a casual cynicism. Moving about the stage with shoulders hunched in a perpetual shrug, squinting with a wicked glint in his eye, he came across as a particularly slick huckster—one felt that at any moment he was going to open his suit jacket and try to sell the audience a collection of stolen watches. His bass-baritone provided moments of dark power, particularly as Méphistofélès torments the ruined and repentant Marguerite at prayer; in addition to his sung lines, Church’s devilish laugh was particularly chilling.
Salvatore Atti was Friday night’s Faust, giving a performance somewhat at odds with the vocal demands of the score and with the theatrical sensibilities of his colleagues. His full, masculine tenor sound proved equal to the role’s middle and lower ranges, but felt consistently blunt, even strained, at the top. An excess of vocal tension overwhelmed and shortened the high C of “Salut, demeure chaste et pure”, possibly the result of apparent physical discomfort. Despite an open, often appealing stage presence, his acting was somewhat monochromatic. His best moments came in his duets with Jensen; Atti responded to her sweet vulnerability with energetic ardor.
In the pants role of Seibel, mezzo-soprano Krista Marie Laskowski brought gravitas—her reading proclaimed him as every inch the Serious Young Man. There was something remote about this Seibel, his emotional life buried deep within a fortress of decorum and reserve. Though Laskowski’s reading yielded touching moments of tenderness, one wished for a few more glimpses of the deep devotion that binds Seibel to Marguerite. Laskowski’s hazel-colored, pleasantly reedy timbre well suited her characterization; her sound set her at a distance from the flashier trio of sensualists with whom she shared the stage.
The show’s scenic elements came together to create a disturbing, abstract world redolent of early 20th century Expressionist film. Andrea Nice’s imaginative set suggested various settings as seen through the lens of a nightmare. A rounded, segmented piece set at an angle suggested a rose window with alternating panes of glass missing; Méphistofélès stood behind the structure in darkness, his reflection barely perceptible as Marguerite, terrified, struggles to find the source of the voice proclaiming her downfall. Lighting designer Chris Bocchiaro made excellent use of the relatively limited palette available in a black box, creating an array of effects both subtle and dramatic. Fallen chandeliers lying about the stage with other architectural detritus suggested glamour, decadence and destruction simultaneously, as well as something of the silent movie based on Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. The electric bulbs within dimmed and brightened depending on the scene, creating a disquieting atmosphere overshadowed by the omnipresence of a malign supernatural force.
Like much of BOC’s inventive programming, Faust et Marguerite is the sort of experiment that allows for new perspectives on an art form overburdened by its own traditions. None of the stereotypical excesses of the genre remain, and what is left feels organic, idiomatic, and absorbing. BOC General Director Chelsea Beatty Lewis spoke of the difference between theater magic (special effects) and magic of the theater (the thrill of live performance) in her pre-show remarks; with this production, the company showed itself quite capable of conjuring both kinds.
Faust et Marguerite repeats on January 21, 22, and 23.
Kate Stringer (MM in musicology from BU) is Research and Public Information Administrator at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. In addition to her scholarly activities, she is a veteran actress, writer and director as well as a versatile mezzo-soprano.