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Vancouver Opera.

Vancouver Opera's third annual Festival, this year centred on the theme of fairytales and fables, opened with a darker-than-usual production of Charles Gounod's Faust on Apr. 27th. Once a repertoire staple, the fortunes of Faust have waned in recent years, probably partly due to its pious, religious morality. For example, Marguerite's castigation by the villagers--and her brother--for bearing a child out of wedlock while the child's father remains morally unscathed may not sit too well with modern audiences.

In Faust, the doomed love affair between Faust and Marguerite fuels the plot at first. But make no mistake, it's really Mephistopheles who runs the show with Marguerite emerging as the only pawn in his grand scheme who possesses the inner fortitude to challenge him. Fortunately, in this VO staging, these two roles were cast to perfection: Vancouver soprano Simone Osborne radiated Marguerite's essential goodness and purity while Toronto bass Robert Pomakov was a consummately evil Mephistopheles in hisVO debut.

Frequently lurking in the shadows at the periphery of the stage, Pomakov made occasional forays into the spotlight whenever it suited his character's evil ends. This unpredictability of location heightened the audience's sense of unease--one never knew where Mephistopheles would appear next. More predictable was the deliciously malevolent edge to Pomakov's dark, burnished voice.

In revealing Marguerite's hidden depths, Osborne managed an incredible juggling act, relinquishing her character's innate innocence--first to submit to Faust's seduction, then to resolutely defy Mephistopheles. Osborne achieved this with her sweet and lyrical soprano that took on a primal, flinty edge when required.

Newfoundlander David Pomeroy was a particularly ardent Faust. A glint of steel in his voice, and sheer physicality aided his successful wooing of the unknowing Marguerite. This achievement belied his ultimate abandonment of Marguerite. His last-ditch attempts at redemption come far too late for any hope of success. He sinks without trace from the opera: no comeuppance, no remorse, no eternal damnation.

As Marguerites brother, Valentin, Peter Barretts burnished baritone was all nobility and grandeur in his glorious "Avant de quitter ces lieux," sung as he sets off to war, entrusting his sister to the care of his foppish young friend, Siebel (who has his own designs on her) .Yet later, Barrett was able to summon a different vocal colour and direct savage vitriol at Marguerite for her ostensible, immoral behaviour. Mireille Lebel endowed the role of Siebel with a supple, pliant mezzo-soprano that made his devout loyalty to Marguerite all that much more poignant in its naivete.

Stage director Francois Racine said his intention was "to focus on the character of Marguerite" in his 2012 L'opera de Montreal Faust. He revived that staging here, with the same sets and costumes by Olivier Landreville and Dominique Guindo respectively. The design elements lent a vintage, early-Romantic European look to production. Massive dark columns, walls and bookshelves hemmed the stage to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. These structures also stood as symbols of the immutable forces controlling the characters' destinies.

As the motley crowds of peasants, students, soldiers, angels and demons, Kinza Tyrrell's Vancouver Opera Chorus has never sounded so resplendently fullbodied, yet precise and marvellously well-tuned. Under the direction of VO's Music Director Emeritus Jonathan Darlington, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra (whose last outing with this score was under Yannick Nezet-Seguin in 2006) played stylishly, lyrically and--a few tuning quibbles between organ and orchestra late in the show notwithstanding--with formidable technical accuracy.

Faust has a strong, likeable heroine and her main adversary is the kind of character audiences love to hate, making for terrific, confrontational drama. Add to that Gounod's attractive, lushly orchestrated score and, with productions this strong, it's entirely possible Faust could be due for a more wide scale revival before long.--Robert Jordan

Caption: Robert Pomakov (Mephistopheles) and Chorus in Vancouver Opera's Faust

Caption: Scene from Pacific Opera Victoria's Countess Maritza
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Title Annotation:VANCOUVER
Author:Jordan, Robert
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2019
Previous Article:Schubert's only opera, Fierabras, is rarely performed and it's not hard to see why.
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