San Francisco Opera's current production of Faust is everything I feared the Gockley era at SFO would come to represent: nothing terrible enough to complain about, but also nothing to get excited about. Now in all fairness, I am still feeling the aftershocks of seeing LA Opera's spectacular Ring, so anything I saw at this point is doomed to pale in comparison, but this is really a pedestrian affair that no one will be talking about a month from now much less in seasons to come. Despite a cast that could get some people excited, a fairly decent set and able conducting, this Faust never really goes anywhere and the origin of the problem is with the opera itself. It's just not well-constructed and should really be consigned to novelty status. How come we can never hear Menotti, yet this treacle gets staged all the time, all over the place? This is really all the more disappointing because if SFO proved anything last fall, it was that they can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse with ease. Not this time. Yet there was one very poignant scene, when the soldiers returned from battle. One dies on a stretcher center stage while freshly-minted widows receive flags in lieu of their men. This was really the most affecting part of the entire 3 hour and 45 minute evening. If there was ever an opera that desperately needs a contemporary interpretation, this is it.
The three principals- Stefano Secco in the title role, John Relyea as Mephistopheles and Patricia Racette as Marguerita in the end paled next to the Valentin of Brian Mulligan, whose nuanced portrayal and expressive singing made him the most interesting character onstage through the entire evening. Racette gathered force as the night wore on, but to see her cast as a young innocent didn't work for me at all. Her rendering of the "Jewel Song" prompted my companion Dr. Hank to disagree with me that that was indeed the song. Her performance in the second act reminded me too much of her recent appearance as Suor Angelica and by the third, when every thing comes together for her as far as voice and character go, I really had no sympathy left for whatsoever.
Relyea has a great, powerful voice and gave the comedic elements of the staging his all, but there was something off in his voice this evening and he sounded strained. Secco sounded like a small man trying on large shoes and they didn't fit for all his trying to stuff this and that into the soles. Is it his fault? Probably not. Gounod, unlike Berlioz, never makes these characters interesting to the audience. They're ciphers, stereotypes of the pure, the evil and the corrupted. Who cares about this in 2010 when the staging looks like it's from 1930?
Due to a prior engagement I'm going to see it one more time, but if I had to do it all over again, I'd just about sell my soul to avoid it. Skip this one. The high point for me? Having champagne during the intermissions with the OT and Herr Feldheim. Dr. Hank was a bit cranky with Alabama Craig that night and not his usual, engaging self. Look for him tonight at the opening of Fanciulla, which he is crankily attending alone.