Atlanta Opera’s spring production of Faust at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre began in a promising way (seen March 11). It is difficult to overstate the remarkable improvement in the opera orchestra’s playing since Maestro Arthur Fagan joined ranks with the Atlanta Opera as music director. Even a season ago, this would have been a difficult opera for this company and this orchestra: the orchestral writing is highly exposed with solo lines throughout. It was apparent from the initial fortissimo note of the prelude that orchestrally things had changed for the better.
Louisa Muller made her Atlanta Opera debut as stage director for this production. She had a gifted cast assembled before her, including Walter Huff’s energetic chorus. It was a traditional but not stodgy staging that employed attractive choreography.
Noah Stewart sang the title role. In a fur-lined robe and surrounded by books, beakers, and other research implements he delivered his initial “Rien!” almost completely doubled over, offering a convincing picture of extreme old age. The opening act was played behind a scrim, providing a sense of intrigue as Faust made his bargain with Méphistophélès, although the darkness of the scene obscured Faust’s transformation after he drank the devil’s frothy potion. Once the scrim was raised and revealed the verdant Act II set — designed by Early Staley and rented from Houston Grand Opera — Stewart was able to convey a stunning contrast between antiquity and youthful impetuousness. His tenor is limpid and warm throughout most of his range. “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” in Act III provided an especially lovely display of Stewart’s lyric ability and dynamic flexibility, made all the more moving by the exquisite violin solo that followed.
Alexander Vinogradov sang the role of Méphistophélès with grandeur and ease. His solo arias were the high points of the evening, especially the strophic serenade, “Vous qui faites l’endormie” when he flaunted a broad palette of vocal color and resonance. Vinogradov’s only sin was his understatement of the musical guffaws that serve to punctuate each verse. Mary Dunleavy returned to Atlanta to sing the ill-fated heroine Marguerite after a glorious run as Violetta last season. Dunleavy is unarguably radiant. A fluent interpreter of lyric soprano repertoire who admirably maintains a vocal production that is both free and fresh, Dunleavy paces herself and never seems to let herself get caught up in the moment until the finale. That was her way in La Traviata last spring and she followed suit here when she sang with abandon in the prison scene and final trio.
The opposite case was exemplified in mezzo-soprano Emily Fons’s performance. Her interpretation of Marguerite’s lovesick suitor Siébel was anything but reserved — rather raw and exceedingly physical. Fons’ rendition of “Faites-lui mes aveux” revealed a voice that ascended the scale easily, both agile and expressive. Edward Parks gave a confident performance as Valentin, delivering the showpiece aria, “Avant de quitter,” that was added to the score for baritone Charles Santley in 1864. Parks’s upper register was thrilling and especially so when he and the orchestra culminated the piece with an impressive crescendo.
Seamless transitions prevailed overall (with the omission of the Walpurgis Night revels and Faust’s encounter with the courtesans of antiquity), yet the concluding moments of the opera and quick scene changes from church to prison to redemption, seemed disjointed. Resolution was close at hand, though, as Méphistophélès and Faust made a hasty exit after the trio, leaving the stage to Marguerite as she was at last delivered from her earthly suffering.