The devil went down to Redlands: ‘Faust’ comes to Redlands Opera Theatre

by Jonathan Keplinger

Redlands Opera Theatre’s recent production of Charles Gounod’s immortal masterpiece, Faust, was presented in Kimberly Hall of the First Congregational Church of Redlands, with standard minor cuts to slightly shorten its great length, and with a single intermission after the third act. It was clear that Redlands Opera Theater, though a small operation and relatively new (founded in 2012), is a quality company featuring a wealth of talented singers and ambitious directors.

Faust is a setting of the famous story by Goethe, which concerns an old philosopher who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth and the passions of love. The title role in ROT’s production was portrayed by the Israeli-born tenor Nadav Hart, who has been blessed with a soothing, warm voice well-suited to the opera’s more introspective and tender moments, such as in the Act III’s love scene. Hart’s Salut, demeure chaste et pure, the opera’s most famous aria, was melodious and comfortable.  However, it was during the Walgpurgis night scene that Hart’s singing became more unrestrained and fervent, that his voice was most engaging.

Performing the prima donna role of Margeurite, Faust’s desired lover, was soprano Christa Stevens, who also serves ROT as music director. Stevens’ portrayal was demure and reserved, emphasizing the great purity and modesty which eventually serves to save Margeurite from certain death. Her vocal performance took a similar tack, her light, pretty timbre beautifully emphasizing the purity of her character.

Standing out spectacularly was lyric baritone Adrian Rosales in an exceptional turn as Méphistophélès — the devil himself. From his first entrance, it was evident that Rosales relished his character, playing him with an impish delight and devious air, yet not too serious. He brought strength and resonance to the lowest pitches of Gounod’s bass-baritone role, and gorgeous, glowing tone to the higher stretches. His solo moments, such as the rousing Le veau d’or, were finely presented and among the best moments in the production.

Still, ROT’s Faust was as its finest when Rosales was joined onstage by the production’s other wonderful baritone voice, Jay Stephenson as Valentin. Stephenson was in great voice and character in the smaller role, bringing a passion and commanding presence to Valentin with his immense yet nuanced sound. Moments in the production such as the tavern scene in Act II and the duel after intermission were notable for the impressive ensemble between Rosales and Stephenson.

Also singing roles in the production were: Victoria Fox, whose voice was impressively, warmly rich and earnest in the breeches role of Siébel; Samantha Merevick, who was energetic and pleasantly humorous as Marthe, Margeurite’s guardian; and Erin von Pingel, who sang the role of with confidence and strength. The chorus, made up of four women and one young man, performed well, especially when considering that many productions use a chorus of well over five times that size. One male voice which was listed in the program was not a part of the chorus on the evening I attended; the ensemble certainly missed his additional male sound, particularly in the triumphant return of the soldiers.

The orchestra for the evening was Dr. Ed Yarnelle, who navigated admirably the complicated layers of orchestration, which is notably difficult to capture in reduction on a single piano. Yarnelle’s playing was never overly conspicuous, and neither covered the singers nor fell too far beneath them in dynamic.

ROT’s artistic director, Christina Jensen, directed the production, and both the set and staging were pleasing and nicely done, especially considering the intimate performance space. Jensen’s staging felt very close to the audience and interactive, as characters often entered and exited though the aisles, or sang arias, trios, and the like from the floor instead of the stage. Practically, this also smartly allowed for set changes to occur behind the closed curtain while action took place on the floor. The costumes, which were of the traditional time period for Faust interpretations, were largely fine, but the decision to use veils over the faces of all the chorus members was both confusing and distracting at times.

Overall, Redlands Opera Theatre provided a highly enjoyable evening. Full of standout vocal performances and charming, engaging stagework, it was a thoroughly pleasing show. Their next production, which will be Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, will be presented in early January.

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