By Christopher Hyde, Portland Press Herald

The Portland Opera Repertory Theater's production of Faust, which premiered Thursday night before a full house at Merrill Auditorium — after an open dress rehearsal on Wednesday — is an almost unqualified success. While there might be some division of opinion about the "timeless" costumes and the minimalist sets, after the lavish productions of past years, there was no question about the quality of the singing and acting, which reached its high point at the trio of Faust, Mephistopheles and Marguerite that concludes the opera. Music director and conductor Bruce Hangen turned up the volume for an emotional climax that had the audience on its feet.

“Non, tu ne prieras pas”

Alfred Walker as Mephistopheles received the most cheers. Granted, the devil is the best role in the opera, but Walker made the most of it, reveling in his power yet understating the histrionics. His sardonic laugh was muted, for example, compared to that of some basses, but all the more effective. He also has a marvelous dark voice, especially in the "Non, tu ne prieras pas" also one of the best staged scenes. How the devil gets into church, when he has been cowed by the cross in previous scenes, will have to be left to the theologians.

Her voice has a crystalline carrying power

I always think of the innocent Marguerite as a wispy Germanic blonde, but Sandra Lopez transformed my conception of the role with a lovely clear voice and some good acting, also sensitively under-played. Her friend Martha Schwerlein, a new widow who is too much for Mephistopheles, was well and coyly sung by Rosalie Sullivan.

Tenor Scott Piper as Faust was more successful as the old scholar, flinging curses at life, than as the renovated lover, although he showed an unexpected athletic ability in climbing the decorative vines to Marguerite's window. The only time when the opera seems to drag are the initial love scenes between her and Faust, which need Mephistopheles' sarcastic comments to keep things going.

Valentin, Marguerite's brother, sung by Philip Cutlip, has some great arias, and is such a military cock-of-the-walk that one is glad to see him stabbed, except that he takes too long dying, all the while cursing his sister. Her other lover, Siebel, mezzo-soprano Marguerite Krull, is delightfully ineffectual, yet her voice has a crystalline carrying power worthy of a stronger role.

The staging

To return to the staging, by director Dona D. Vaughn, with set designer Anita Stewart, much of it was effective, including the use of shadows on colored backdrops, the magic sequences, and stage business such as Mephistopheles emerging from a coffin. The transformations of Faust and Marguerite were also effectively managed. Less successful, however, were the prison scene and some of the earlier dance sequences (shortened in this version). German medieval period costume throughout might have worked better than the eclectic collection of modern dress, peasant costume and some kind of frock coat that appeared Thursday night. Siebel was particularly ill served. I did love Mephistopheles' red sword cane, however, and Faust's hooded gown.

All in all, however, nothing severely detracted from an excellent production of one of the world's great operas. The audience came away feeling that the P.O.R.T enterprise now deserves to be judged by national rather than provincial standards, and that it passed the test with flying colors.

Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram.


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