Fashions change in the world of opera. Charles Gounod's 1859 “Faust” was once among the most performed works, but lately its popularity has declined.
At San Francisco Opera, seven productions occurred between 1926 and 1937. But in the past half century, the hiatus stretched to a decade; the last production was 15 years ago.
Sorry to say, if the resurgence of Gounod by the Bay depends on the success of the Lyric Opera of Chicago production which opened in the War Memorial Saturday, it likely won’t happen.
It's something of a puzzle why a well-directed (Jose Maria Condemi), well-conducted (Maurizio Benini), good-looking (Robert Perdziola) production, with a promising cast and an excellent performance by the men of Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus, isn't more appealing than what was served up to open the opera's summer season.
It was a curiously underwhelming experience.
Running almost four hours – even while wisely skipping the Witches' Sabbath and the silly, interminable ballet – the production felt musically and dramatically static, despite some high points,
With four unending scenes making up the third act – even if the final scene was among the evening's highlights – the production was too much … and not enough.
The major life force of the performance was John Relyea's Méphistophéles. His singing and acting – with the curious exception of a middling “Le veau d'or',” the character's big aria – reached out into theater, in an unfortunate comparison with Stefano Secco's role debut as Faust.
Relyea filled the house, while Secco's sweet, pleasant voice stayed onstage, with unimpressive projection and little power. His stage presence and acting were equally disappointing.
Patricia Racette, a major house favorite, had a slow start, but she shone in Act 3.
Brian Mulligan's Valentine was excellent (note to director: when a large man with an impressive girth dies on the stage, do not have him point his tummy to the sky), while Catherine Cook's Marthe and Daniela Mack's Siebel were vocally and dramatically noteworthy.
Even with so many individual achievements, the whole of this “Faust” is less than the sum of its parts. As Goethe said in the Prologue in Heaven: “While man's desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err.”
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. June 8 and 11; 7 p.m. June 16 and 23 and July 1; 1:30 p.m. June 20 and 26
Tickets: $20 to $105
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com