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Opening Night at North Carolina Opera’s Faust

An old man disappointed with his life’s work makes a deal with the devil.  That is the story, in short, of Faust, the play by Wolfgang  von Goethe.  The opera, performed by North Carolina Opera, with music by Charles Gounoud and libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, opened Thursday night to a nearly full house at Meymandi Concert Hall.

The old man, Faust (tenor Dimitri Pittas), frustrated in his old age by the sounds of youth and happiness from outside, calls for Satan.  Satan appears to him in the form of Mephistopheles (baritone Christian Van Horn).  They make an arrangement that involves finding and winning the heart of the lovely Marguerite (soprano Mary Dunleavy) for the young-again Faust.

There is no shortage of talent in NC Opera’s production of the timeless tragedy.  Vocally and orchestrally the program is fully satisfying.

Leads Pittas, Dunleavy, and Van Horn; Liam Bonner as Marguerite’s brother Valentin; Irene Roberts in the trouser role of Siebel, Marguerite’s young suitor; John Brandon as Valentin’s friend Wagner; and Janice Meyerson as Marguerite’s friend Marthe Schwerlein are a cast of vocally powerful and dexterous singers.

Dunleavy’s bright tone is fluid and natural.  Liam Bonner who is on the stage too short a time is very welcome on his return in the second half.  Dunleavy and Bonner both transcend the small stage with their acting ability, on top of their breathtaking vocals.

The artistic design of the video projections, by S. Katy Tucker contributes to the storytelling.  The screen changes so subtly to reflect the mood that it’s hardly noticeable it has changed until a completely new image has formed.  Under these images are the English supertitles.  These short summaries are subtle helpers for non-French speaking audiences.

For all the talent on the stage and behind the scenes, NC Opera’s Faust is not without its problems.  This semi-staged production is sometimes crowded and awkward as the chorus moves on and off the curtainless area in front of the orchestra set with trees, tables and benches.  For the small area the singers have to work, the production is over-staged.

It isn’t all overdone, though.  The elaborately designed video projections and dramatic characterizations stand in contrast to the modern cargo-style khaki pants worn by the men in the chorus.  This costume choice pulls the audience from the magical place the music might take us to here and now.

Despite the weaknesses of the production, the weeping sound of the strings in the orchestra and the passionate voices are moving and might bring a smile one minute and a tear the next.

You can see North Carolina Opera’s Faust Saturday, April 30 at 8pm at Meymandi Concert Hall.

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