The phantom in ‘Faust’

by Amber Peters, Lister reviewer

When I turned eleven, my mother took me on a special date to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A. I wore my pale pink satin dress with the dropped-waist sash and rode proudly in the front seat of our blue Astro van. We saw The Phantom of the Opera. The booming pipe organ, the danger and mystery, the beautiful singing, the rising and falling of the enormous chandelier, it was enough to overpower me. That day changed my life forever. Years later, I discovered a passion for used book stores, and on one excursion I snagged a hard cover copy of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. It differs greatly from Webber’s musical; it’s more like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but at the center of the action was Gounod’s Faust at the Paris Opera House. Until this week, I’ve never had the opportunity to see that work performed live, but when I heard Repertory Opera Company was performing it, I was eager to go!

The townspeople enjoy market day, unaware of the dramatic event about to take place.

Historically, Faust was the most frequently performed work at the Paris Opéra, and when the Metropolitan Opera in NYC opened for the first time in 1883, they opened with it. Our local opera company in Pomona is doing a laudable public service by presenting excellent and compelling works like this.  It provides opportunities for both audiences and local singers to experience this magnificent music. Repertory Opera Company takes a more accessible route of replacing many of the sung French recitatives with spoken dialogue in English. Like true connoisseurs, however, they leave the sung musical numbers in the original language, for the sake of beauty. Sometimes it can be a challenge to follow an unfamiliar story in a foreign language with no supertitles, but the spoken English dialogue helps a lot.

The Repertory Opera Company gave a delightful performance. Brian Farrell, at the piano, provided the rich and precise support the cast needed. Arthur Freeman as Méphistophélès, was engaging and humorous, an irresistible and knowing tempter. James Salazar, as Faust, sent heroic, ringing tenor notes into the rafters. The small but mighty men’s chorus of six singers sounded impressively manly. David Hobbs, as Valentin, had a melting lyric baritone. Elizabeth Sywulka, whose voice was full and lovely, with lyric musicality and pleasing control, was a beautiful Marguerite. Wendy Kikkert‘s crystal and shimmering mezzo voice gave her Siebel a sympathetic likability. Mezzo Alexia Benson (as Marthe Schwertlein) rounded out a gorgeous quartet with Méphistophélès, Faust, and Marguerite.

The death of Valentin

All the greatest hits were included in the production, like the Soldier’s Chorus, Le vaux d’or, the Jewel Song, and the glorious grand finale. At the beginning of Act II, a powerful pipe organ was added to the accompaniment, played by Kevin Wiley. It was an exciting dramatic touch!

While it was once firmly established as part of opera’s core repertoire, Gounod’s Faust seems to have fallen a bit out of favor with today’s opera companies, or perhaps their audiences, but I would like to see it return to the regular rotation. Not only is it an exquisite and gripping musical drama full of delicious lyrical romanticism, but the themes of the triumph of Heaven over Hell, and the victory of Good over Evil are unusually strong. This message is timeless and uplifting. I did struggle with several aspects of the plot. Poor Marguerite was alone, centuries before mental health care was heard of, and placed under the worst stresses conceivable. But the rapturous finale — when she chose to reject temptation, give herself to God, and was carried to Heaven by angels — was enough to bring me to tears. Interestingly, in the novel The Phantom of the Opera, when Christine as Marguerite hit her highest note begging Heaven to save her, the Phantom chose that exact moment to plunge the theatre into darkness and abduct Christine from the very stage.  He cast himself as her rescuing angel. Seeing Faust live made that drama more rich for me.

All photos: Courtesy of Repertory Opera Company

Editor’s note: Our apologies to Repertory Opera and the performers in this production, for the delay in getting this review posted. It was due to no fault by our reviewer, but the result of my own administrative backlog and blog error. Many thanks for allowing us to cover this production. — L

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