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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Opera Review: Swedish Salvation

The second cast takes over in Faust.

by Paul Pelkonen.
"You like me! You really like me!"
Malin Byström as Marguerite in Faust.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
The reason to hear Thursday night's performance of the Met's new Dez McAnuff production of Gounod's Faust was the house debut of Swedish soprano Malin Byström as Marguerite. 

As the opera's conflicted heroine, (central to this version of Goethe) Ms. Byström was not as dramatically mannered as her predecessor. She sang the role simply and honestly, soaring to some impressive heights in the Jewel Song and generating real angst in Act IV, when the pregnant Marguerite is tormented by the Devil and kills her own child.

Already established in Europe, Ms. Byström is an impressive singer with a secure technique and an interesting stage presence. There is great potential here. Should she rise to international fame, the Met might consider mounting Verdi rarity I Masnadieri for her. She has the very challenging soprano role (written for fellow Swede Jenny Lind) in her curriculum vitae.

Roberto Alagna's high-energy stage presence and fluid, easy French was a pleasure of the evening. Although the singer celebrated Faust's return to youth with a surprise cartwheel across the stage in the first act, it was vocal acrobatics that the audience wanted. Mr. Alagna showed his experience with this opera, (this is his third production of Faust at the Met) blending well with his old partner René Pape as Méphistophélès. His finest moment came in the Act III aria "Salut, demeure chaste et pure," which he delivered with supple tone and a smooth legato.

The tenor had a stage manager request the audience's indulgence in the pause between Act IV and V, claiming that he was ill and that he would attempt to finish. To be fair, he strained in the heavy orchestra in the (usually cut) Walpurgisnacht ballet. But he recovered for the final trio, helping to bring the prison scene to a thrilling climax. Mr. McAnuff's added last scene, where an aged Faust returns to the stage to drink poison (invalidating the whole opera) was played as a quick afterthought.

Mr. Pape continues to excel as Méphistophélès, the embodiment of well-dressed evil. Making his entry in a natty white suit, Mr. Pape toyed with the other singers and the audience. Once more, he rocked the Song of the Golden Calf. He would offer ironic commentary at one point, tear through an aria at another, and play to the house with gusto, as if letting the spectators in on the magnificence of his maleficent design.

Baritone Brian Mulligan gave a strong performance as Valentin, Marguerite's notoriously unforgiving brother. His burly stage presence and steady tone made this soldier an impressive figure, both in the famous "Avant de quitter ce lieux" and the Act IV duel with Faust. Mr. Alagna brought particular enthusiasm to this scene. He thoroughly enjoyed himself in the sword-fight. 

Mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe, who inherited the role of Marthe after an onstage accident felled mezzo Wendy White, played along beautifully in the Act II quartet. Her interplay with Mr. Pape was a comic highlight of the performance. At one point, Marthe chased Mr. Pape across the back line of the stage, as if the Prince of Darkness would make a suitable date for Friday night. 

Also intact in this performance was the lyric, powerful conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has particular command over the big choruses that pepper this score. The Met chorus also gave a fine, lusty performance, as the Act II and IV soldiers. Later, they brought cosmic weight to the forces of good and evil as Goethe's drama plays out in the final act.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.