Semi-staged opera in concert is an accepted alternative to the expense of full productions. N.C. Opera's presentation of "Faust" in Meymandi Concert Hall on Thursday proved viable and even innovative, despite some distracting elements.
Gounod's 1859 "Faust" has fallen out of favor with critics and producers in the last half-century because of its Victorian morality and simplification of Goethe's play. Still, it has some of the most beautiful and stirring music in all opera.
The cast heard Thursday was uniformly musical and confident. Although Faust is the one who sells his soul to the devil, his object of desire, Marguerite, gets the widest emotional range, which Mary Dunleavy expertly explored. Her warm, attractive soprano was capable of great delicacy or soaring power, as needed. Dimitri Pittas was an ardent Faust, his clear, bright tenor intelligently negotiating the role, especially its most lyrical passages. But in more emphatic sections, his voice often lacked necessary bloom and heft.
As Marguerite's brash, protective brother, Valentin, Liam Bonner employed his booming baritone to thrilling effect, garnering the strongest applause of the evening. Christian Van Horn's darker, smoother baritone added sophisticated bite to Méphistophélès, his devilish expressions and body language never overdone. Mezzo Irene Roberts sang with perky charm as Marguerite's young suitor, Sièbel.
The 54-piece orchestra played with lush nuance under conductor Timothy Myers, whose feeling for the score gave much pleasure. Though the grandest passages, such as the "Soldiers' Chorus" and the famous "Waltz," had impressive vigor, tempos in quieter moments sometimes lacked tension. Myers also seemed to lose steam toward the end of the evening's third hour. Three dozen chorus members, deployed on stage and off, added lusty joy and sepulchral eeriness.
An unusual element was the presence of a giant screenover the singers for S. Katy Tucker's video projections, deftly commenting on each scene with flaming skulls, shooting stars and glowing crucifixes. These were enhanced with text translations by director James Marvel, whose experiment of providing only key lines worked well enough, although some dramatic dialog needed more explanation. His direction was best when focusing on solos and duets, but asked for too much movement from an awkward chorus and added details with props more appropriate to a full staging.
Nevertheless, the production had rewards enough to balance out its less successful features.