Wolf Trap’s ‘Faust’ brings a hard bargain to the Big Easy


On Sunday, a matinee of Wolf Trap Opera’s “Faust” didn’t feel all that far removed from the muggy afternoon beyond the sturdy walls of the Barns, set as it was in the deep heat of fin de siècle New Orleans.

But director Alison Moritz’s smartly refined production of Charles Gounod’s 1859 mainstay proved immediately transportive, casting the opera in an alluring new light and concentrating its grandeur into a potent potion.

This “Faust” — the tale of an aging scholar who strikes a deal with the devil for another taste of youth — had its own fateful bargain to strike: For the cozy purposes of the 382-seat Barns and its modest pit, conductor Geoffrey McDonald led his lean 26-piece orchestra in a reduced orchestration of the opera by Francis Griffin.

McDonald handled his short staff ably and energetically, filling in gaps of anticipated intensity and approximating vacancies of scale wherever he reasonably could, and otherwise offering a sensitive, responsive and clearly endeared reading of the score. (Admittedly, I’d have traded both of my shoes to the devil for a single trombone.)

This tamping of Gounod’s roaring flame put added pressure on the singers to sing — not to mention the intimacy of the space raises the stakes on those singers to act.

Fortunately, all aspects were in order on Sunday: Moritz’s vision is graced by a keenly cast ensemble of talented singers, well-complemented by a chorus of Wolf Trap studio artists, its ranks effervescently present and (for the most part) dynamically sound. (Here and there, the orchestra didn’t stand a chance.)

Tenor Eric Taylor made a forceful and compassionate Dr. Faust, his “Rien! En vain j’interroge” a rending introduction of a man broken by longing and (here) jonesing for poison. A remaining fleck or two of the youthful vigor to which he was trying to bargain his way back would have been welcome, but it was still an assured demonstration of the grace and control Taylor wielded through all five acts.

Certainly soprano Brittany Logan was the afternoon’s standout singer as Marguerite — her voice clear and rich, capable of burnished color and shocking lightness. She has this way of tightening her voice around a particularly aching word; you can hear the stone in her throat. It’s not that she’s superhuman; she’s extra-human, a quality that made her Marguerite magnetic. This was especially so in her lithe and lilting jewel aria (“Ah! je ris de me voir si belle”) and her anguished pleas (and chilling heights) in the final trio (“Anges purs anges radieux”).

Méphistophélès was convincingly embodied in white linen finery and impressively sung by bass Wm. Clay Thompson. Part unholy spirit and part Deep South mob boss, he lent the devil suitably skeevy form and restrained vocal power. (Thompson apparently specializes at mining a sinister undercurrent in his voice, his lows smoldering like magma.) I loved his cloying faux-serenade in Act IV (“Vous qui faites l’endormie”) and his last stand in the demonic fifth act, presiding in a horned mask over an eerie mob of revelers in a humid-looking bordello.

In a pants role, mezzo-soprano Mary Beth Nelson offered a charming take on the crushingly dorky and perpetually friend-zoned Siébel, skillfully girding the young rival’s nervous voice with a thin rod of earnest nobility. Baritones Kyle White and Mario Manzo gave strong performances and likable energy to the duo of Valentin and Wagner, the former admirably rising to the required swagger and dying one of the slowest deaths I’ve ever seen onstage. I left the hall wanting to hear more of mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty, whose voice was warm and rich, and gave more than the average Marthe.

The opera’s NOLA vibe was helped along with costumes by Lynly Saunders and lights by Colin K. Bills, whose golden-hour sunsets and crimson underworld bestowed the action with a poetic halo. Lawrence E. Moten III’s scenic designs were clean and clever — the wrought-iron rails and balconies of a New Orleans court quickly transforming into a chapel (complete with an effective shock of organ). A signpost in front of Marguerite’s home reads “1020 Rue Saint Ann” — a nod to Marie Laveau, a 19th-century free woman of color who became known as the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans” that here serves as a spiritual template of sorts for our troubled heroine.

At times, Moritz’s vision of the Big Easy felt a touch congested onstage, and I wondered whether more routine use of a central platform thrust into the front rows might have helped. But these were small distractions in a production that otherwise wicked uncanny power from a limited palette. Even in reduced form, it felt like a deal worth striking.

Faust repeats July 27 and 29 at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. wolftrap.org/opera.


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