Sunday, May 25, 2014

FAUST: Opera Hong Kong (Review)

Saturday, 10th May 2024
Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Presented as part of Le French May Arts Festival and in a co-production with Opéra Nice Côte d’Azur, Opéra Grand Avignon and Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Étienne, Opera Hong Kong’s spirited staging of Charles Gounod’s Faust exemplified once again the enthusiasm and dedication of this non-profit organization established 11 years ago.

Premiering in 1859 at the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris, Faust depicts the battle between good and evil, telling the story of the ageing scholar, Doctor Faust, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for youth after being tempted by an image of the beautiful young Marguerite. With a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, it is based on Carré’s tragic play Faust et Marguerite from 1850, which owed its inspiration to Faust, Part 1, by the great German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Gounod’s music is a subliminal expression of the romantic, sacred and profane, furnished with rich melodies and grand choral scenes. Conductor, Benjamin Pionnier, sturdily led the Hong Kong Sinfonietta to exact a compelling performance of the score with particular praise for the brass section for their clarity and precision.

Director, Paul-Emile Fourny’s circumspect interpretation, together with set and costume designs by Poppi Ranchetti produced a splendorous setting for Gounod’s gamut of glorious music. A subtle mix of influences shaped the numerous scenes comprising the opera’s five acts, both intimately and ethereally brought to form with lighting designer, Jacques Chatelet’s expertise. Constant throughout each scene was an obliquely arranged series of shallow steps to one side of the stage, smartly utilized for balancing both the large chorus scenes as well as the smaller, intimately directed ones. From the eerie, vaulted heights of Doctor Faust’s study and the haunting, monochromatic garden setting for Marguerite’s house, to the muted, sparing splash of colour capturing the imagery of the early years of tinted black and white photography, the stage was indeed riveting in form and dress.

The very strength provided by the visual setting, however, was not always matched in equal measure by the cast, from which some over-zealous acting included wild brawling, tumbles and rolls across the stage and a tad too much fainting. And as earnest as each of the principals were, a lack of synergy in their interactions undermined critical moments of emotional and dramatic intensity. This could have been due in part because the roles of Faust and Marguerite were performed for just one night by the alternate principals seen at this performance.

In the title role as Faust, tenor, Shawn Mathey, gave a fine performance but struggled to persuade that he’d ever fallen for the pure, protected and reserved Marguerite. Vocally, his middle range displayed a broad, handsome timbre but high notes were often constricted, burdening his ability to sustain an elegant length.

After an uneasy entrance, Kimy McLaren, in the soprano role of Margerite, faired beautifully in her tender portrayal of a woman both hesitant and eager to love, then horribly tormented by Faust’s desertion and her subsequent transfiguration. In an intimately crafted setting that begins Act Four, her rendition of “Il Ne Revient Pas”, ardently conveyed Marguerite’s anguish and betrayal.

Mephistopheles’s entertaining devil-bass, sung by Dimitry Ivashchenko, delivered the requisite power to grant, coerce, intimidate and inflict his ways to ruinous effect in a voice of sonorous strength and endurance. As Siebel, Marguerite’s adolescent lovesick and loyal companion, Carol Lin charmed with delightful boyish energy, though occasionally at the expense of vocal smoothness.

But it was Zhengzhong Zhou who was especially commendable on the night in the baritone role of Valentin, Margerite’s protective brother and victim to Faust’s sword in a dual. Receiving critical acclaim after standing in for Dimitri Hvorostovsky in the role of Valentin in a 2011 performance of Faust at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, he brought a headstrong tenacity to Valentin’s fervour in a resounding, warm baritone voice.

Varyingly portraying young women and matrons, labourers, a church choir, witches and demons, Opera Hong Kong’s large chorus of around sixty talented volunteers comfortably took to the broad stage to enact their parts. Though an overly abundant enthusiastic display of melodramatic behaviour at times distracted from the immediate action unfolding between the principals, their vocal competence is unquestionable but a little tightening on the reins to achieve greater expression and tone would elevate them further.

But for what was an accomplished performance peppered with a mild mix of incongruities, what must be said is that this wonderful contingent of talent emanating from Opera Hong Kong makes the city a worthy and exciting destination for opera when visiting Asia.

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