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PORTopera Brings a Classic to Portland

By Gaetano Santa Lucia, Journal Tribune Reviewer

So how does the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre do it? Year after year we are treated to fabulous young voices - and they can act as well!

This year's production of "Faust" is no exception. Sandra Lopez, as Marguerite, has a lovely voice, even in all the registers, and with a top that does not weaken as it soars. Singing the "Thule" aria and "Jewel" aria back-to-back in Act II is no easy task, but Lopez does it without a problem.

Scott Piper, as Faust, has an exciting tenor voice with a real punch at the top. He has a slight vibralto which infuses his voice with emotion, yet is able to soften his delivery at the end of "Salut! Demure chaste et pure," a feat many tenors are unable to do.

Alfred Walker, as Mephistopheles, impresses me as much with his poise and intelligence as with his bass voice. He does not have a "big" sound, and he wisely doesn't push it. But his voice does have a rich texture tom it, and he uses it to advantage throughout the opera. He gets deserved applause at the end of "Le veau d'or," a dramatic scene in the church between him and Marguerite.

Philip Cutlip, as Valentin, possesses a high baritone with both a quick vibrato and an open top. He makes much of both of his arias. Marguerite Krull, as Siebel, has made one wish: That playwright Charles Gounod had written more music for this role. She has a sweet, expressive voice and an excellent stage presence. And in secondary roles, Alok Kumar, as Wagner, and Rosalie Sullivan, as Martha, are fine.

The sets, designed by Anita Stewart, may not be to everyone's liking, but it is fascinating. They aren't realistic-looking, consisting mostly of black and white flats with appropriate openings, though the props and costumes most definitely are. The juxtaposition of the two works very well. Mephistopheles' entrance via a staircase that suddenly appears in the center of the stage, and his subsequent disappearance, are well handled, as is the inclusion of the Merrill Auditorium's organ in the church scene. What doesn't work so well, however, is the garden setting in Act II: Nice flowers, but there is no real need for the ivy. It actually distracts the audience, which should be focused on the stage.

The conducting of Bruce Hangen is, as always, fantastic. Hangen has the ability to bring out various instruments and textures in the orchestra without ever overwhelming the singers. He always allows the singer to "breathe," and yet retains an overall view of the score. We are indeed fortunate in this community to have so gifted a group of artists. They're well worth the visit to Portland tonight or Saturday.

Gounod's moment in the spotlight

The opera "Faust," by Charles F. Gounod, was first performed in Paris in 1859, roughly at the same period as works by Wagner and Verdi were gaining acclaim. At that time Gounod's star shone as brightly as those two, but by the time the 20th Century rolled around, his fame had declined rapidly. Only in recent years has "Faust" and, to a lesser extent, his "Roméo and Juliet," returned with some frequency to opera houses.

This makes the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre's production of "Faust" all the more important. Portland area residents will get a chance to see a true operatic masterpiece, with many arias and melodies that might prove to be familiar. Like Bizet's "Carmen," "Faust" was originally composed as an "opera-comique," meaning there was spoken dialogue between various numbers. Ten years later, in its production at the Paris Opera, Gounod added the recitations and ballet. He made a number of changes during his life, cutting a few numbers, adding many more and in some ways making a "standard" edition of the work non-existent. In other words, there are a number of acceptable versions of the opera out there.

One consistent change, however, has been in the opera's focus. The drama of good and evil originally created by authors Christopher Marlowe and Wolfgang von Goethe has moved more and more toward a romantic, if not sentimental, story. Yes, the idea of a man who sells his soul to the Devil is still basic to the opera, but Faust's relationship with Marguerite gains more attention, while Mephistopheles' role is reduced to such an extent that German theaters now call the opera "Margarethe" and state flatly that any resemblance to the Goethe work is purely coincidental.

In return for this shift in focus, though, we are treated to one unforgettable melody after another. And while the original "Faust" was performed in five acts in Paris, ever since it's been done in three parts.

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