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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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Flaws in Madison Opera's crowd-pleasing Faust

Credit:James Gill

Gounod's Faust endures as a sure-fire audience-pleaser, whether because of or despite any given production. After 150 years, however, there is still no definitive edition of the score, while performances offer jumbled versions of an inherently corrupt tradition.

No less so with this past weekend's production in Overture Hall by the Madison Opera. For openers, the orchestral introduction was omitted. The scene order and contents of Acts IV and V (as originally designated) were cut and scrambled. Omission of the Walpurgisnacht and Brocken scenes, with the typically Parisian ballet, has become standard, but dropping Marguerite's spinning scene was sad.

Then there was the question of staging. Director Bernard Uzan, who also directed Faust at Opéra de Montréal, showed a lot of imagination within a mostly traditional setting, with particular expertise in crowd scenes. The Act II Kermesse was rich in detail, including a background enactment of the Devil's corruption of Adam and Eve as an allegorical comment on Faust's front-stage advances to Marguerite. But Uzan went altogether over the top in a bizarre distortion of the church scene in the last act.

Of the seven soloists in the cast, all but one were making their first appearances in Madison. The one Madison veteran, Melissa Wilkison made an amusing Marthe, while Marie Lenormand was vivacious and Cherubino-like as Siébel. The role of Wagner gave Scott Johnson too little to make an impression.

Among the leads, soprano Jill Gardner portrayed Marguerite with lustrous tone and sympathetic characterization. But David Lomeli was disappointing as the title character. He could sing the notes with confidence and strength, but his tone was constricted and he had little sense of French style, much less acting.

Faust is, of course, a vapid character to begin with, so that the show can easily be stolen by the Méphistophélès. That was done with flair by lean-voiced bass David Pittsinger, whose flamboyant portrayal of the Devil was delightful, but rather too heavily focused on comedy as against malevolence. Perhaps the true scene-stealer was baritone Hyung Yun, who was a vocally strong and dramatically compelling Valentin.

The chorus, some 46-strong, sang and acted with high spirit in Act II, backed up there and elsewhere by nearly 20 supers and entertainers. Conductor Laurent Campellone, who showed his feelings for Madison Opera's The Pearl Fishers in 2007, brought vigor to his pit leadership this time, while the orchestra responded reliably, some moments of roughness aside.

So, again a pleaser-production upon encounter, if a mixed achievement for Madison Opera upon contemplation.

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