By T.J. Medrek, Boston Herald
PORTLAND, Maine - Gounod's "Faust" has been around nearly 150 years now, and while its popularity ebbs and flows the opera remains an honest and persuasive musical portrayal of the struggle between good and evil. On Thursday, the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre offered a performance at the beautiful Merrill Auditorium that, despite some negatives, reminded what a powerful piece of music theater "Faust" can be. The production repeats tonight.
The chief virtue of Portland's "Faust" was the conducting of Bruce Hangen, who is also PORT's artistic and general director. Bostonians know Hangen best for his regular appearances leading the Boston Pops (he was named the orchestra's principal guest conductor this spring) and as music director of the Indian Hill Symphony in Littleton.
But PORT is Hangen's first musical love, and it showed. Hangen's leadership of the orchestra, which played superbly throughout, reminded how symphonic this score must have seemed at its 1859 premiere. The sound from the pit was rich and warm - the 1,900-seat Merrill's acoustics favor the orchestra somewhat - but Hangen never settled for mere beauty.
Energized and propulsive
The playing was energized and propulsive from start to finish, proving that this music, no matter how quaint some of it might seem to modern ears, is as evocative - the intoxicating summer night in Act Two, for example, or the spiritual ecstasy of the finale - as music gets.
Dona D. Vaughn's production placed the action on a mostly plain stage decorated with few but effective set pieces by Anita Stewart (and, in both the Church and Prison scenes, the hall's own organ facade). The focus here was squarely on the struggle of the devil Mephistopheles (Alfred Walker) for the soul of Faust (Scott Piper) and, indirectly, that of Marguerite (Sandra Lopez), whose life they destroy but who is redeemed at death by her faith in God.
There was one major miscalculation, for which Vaughn and Hangen must share responsibility: the reconfiguration of the scenes of the opera's final acts that placed the Church scene after the death of Marguerite's soldier-brother, Valentin (Philip Cutlip), and before the Prison scene (in place of the Walpurgis Night and its ballet). This made nonsense of some of the text and did structural damage to the work as a whole.
Vocal honors went to Cutlip, who stood out with his muscular yet elegantly delivered account of his role. Walker has grown in authority since singing the title role in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" with Boston Lyric Opera a few seasons back, but was still one notch shy of complete command. Lopez was too scrappy (and, at times, too harsh-voiced) to be an ideal embodiment of pure innocence, and she had troubling pitch problems. And Piper, not much of an actor, demonstrated more vocal promise than finish in the title role.
In the smaller roles, Alok Kumar, who sang memorably with the Pops this spring, was fine as the student Wagner. Rosalie Sullivan as Martha and, especially, Marguerite Krull as Siebel created real and surprisingly sympathetic characters. The PORT chorus and members of the Portland Ballet did themselves similarly proud.