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Hall review-Opera Carolina’s Faust is a devil of a good time

Opera Carolina’s current production of Gounod’s “Faust” has all the elements for an enjoyable evening ó a talented cast, impressive sets, a top-notch orchestra ó presenting one of the most popular works in opera repertoire.
But if you are a philosopher, wanting to contemplate the work’s deeper meaning and not just be entertained, there’s plenty for you as well.
You might even say the devil’s in the details, since some of the subtleties of the production provide the most to think about, such as stage director Bernard Uzan’s decision to dress Faust and Mephistopheles in identical costumes in all their scenes together, illustrating that Faust does not meet the devil externally, but within himself. As the pre-performance lecture pointed out, the French libretto employs “tu” rather than “vous” when Faust and the devil converse, implying a great deal of familiarity.
The most musically well-known parts of “Faust” occur at its happier moments, such as the popular waltz and the soldier chorus. After its somber opening, much of the opera is actually quite lighthearted, even comical. So when events take an intensely melodramatic turn, the contrast is all the more startling. Uzan’s staging of the scene where the heroine Marguerite seeks refuge and forgiveness in a church is particularly memorable and creepy.
There can obviously be no living happily ever after for the character of Faust after he has willingly chosen Mephistopheles as his ally. Marguerite, on the other hand, loses her earthly life because of her sins but saves her soul through contrition, a point made clear by the heavenly Opera Carolina chorus and strategically placed lighting.
Chester Patton, making his Opera Carolina debut as Mephistopheles, captures the essence of the role so convincingly that he’s scary. He has an amazing voice, commanding stage presence, and an enviable physique that enables him to effortlessly perform leaps and other physical maneuvers making him seem almost superhuman.
One might be tempted to joke that perhaps Patton has made some sort of pact himself in order to have it all: looks, voice, charisma. Hopefully, it’s all due to training, exercise and discipline.
It’s hard to compete for attention when you are on stage with someone playing the devil, but the other principals manage to collect their share of bravos from the audience. Maureen O’Flynn as Marguerite and James Valenti as Faust provide remarkable performances, both separately and together. And Corey McKern, performing as Valentin, turned in a particularly stirring aria in the first act.
Opera Carolina has chosen to include a scene usually cut in modern times: the Walpurgis Night, where Faust and Mephistopheles join in revelry with witches, Cleopatra and assorted voluptuous women. But some other choice cuts keep the performing time to about two and a half hours, not including the two 20-minute intermissions. It’s a long evening, but I was so engaged in the music and plot that I was unaware of the time.
I normally sit in the cheap seats, but for this performance I was seated in the front row, knees practically up to the rail, peering into the orchestra’s woodwind section and only a few feet from Maestro James Meena’s conducting arm.
From this perspective, I paid even more attention to the instrumentalists than usual, and had my opinion confirmed that the Charlotte Symphony is a jewel of a musical organization.
Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Meena turn any pages. I leaned slightly forward to see if what I thought was indeed true. He was conducting this lengthy work by memory.
Once I had that realization, I found it hard to take my eyes away from Meena. He was confidently and effortlessly giving every tempo, cue, dynamic and often even mouthing the words with the singers.
I was so fascinated by his conducting, it took the devil himself to draw my attention back to the stage.
nnn
Opera Carolina’s “Faust” will have two more performances: 7:30 p.m. tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday in Belk Theater at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte.
For tickets, call 704-372-1000.
For more information, visit www.operacarolina.org.

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