Review: IO's Faust sets a milestone 

click to enlarge IO Principals Kevin Short, Maureen O'Flynn and Gran Wilson - DENIS RYAN KELLY JR.

It was meant to be something of a secret. We saw nothing in advance notices by Indianapolis Opera that Friday and Sunday's production of Gounod's Faust (1859) would be different from any opera production heretofore -- reportedly by anybody. Who knew, as we awaited the Clowes Hall curtain to rise, that the sets would primarily be video projections on scrims raised and dropped at varying distances (and sometimes the same distance) from the stage front, that the entire stage would be mostly lit from these projections, that we'd have a mix of stills and motion, the latter for rapid scene changing. Credit for this first live-staged-opera-with-video goes to stage director Joachim Schamberger. (Another way to read the review title is: "IO's Faust sets [are] a milestone.")

Tenor Gran Wilson reprised his title role as Faust from IO's last production in 2000. First seen as scholarly, aged and crippled, he makes a "Faustian" bargain with Méphistophélès, sung by bass-baritone Kevin Short -- also from 2000 -- becoming youthful and vibrant. Of course the young Faust is immediately drawn to Marguerite when spying her in a village crowd. Soprano Maureen O'Flynn lends her superior vocal prowess to that role, having dominated IO's productions of La Bohème and La Traviata in its last two seasons.

A very tall Sean Anderson sang Valentin, Marguerite's brother, who is off to war during most of the three acts (cut from the opera's original five acts). He entrusts youthful Siébel, sung by soprano Jennifer DeDominici (she sings a male role here), to be Marguerite's protector, whereas he would rather be her lover. But from the beginning, Faust makes all the moves, to little avail for a great while.

Then, suddenly at the end of act two, through the machinations of Méphistophélès, Faust and Marguerite are not only "united in love," but she also carries his child. Though Faust is the central figure at the opera's beginning, it is Marguerite around which its plot revolves at the end: Will she be saved from the devil's curse? Wholly disillusioned, she gives birth and, carrying her well-bundled baby in her arms, she casts it into a river, shown flowing in the foreground from a distant bridge (she actually throws her "bundle" between two adjacent scrims, making it suddenly disappear into the "water").

O'Flynn and Short dominate the singing in this production, not only in outlining their personae, but in delivering rich, well projected, well controlled vocalism. Wilson gives us a nicely burnished voice, but with occasional shrillness. The other principals are competent but unexceptional. As always, IO artistic director and conductor James Caraher led a well prepared Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, with an electronic organ resonating at Marguerite's final salvation. Though the IO Chorus began a bit raggedly, it became more disciplined as the opera progressed.

Schamberger's use of video in concert with the stage blocking was amazingly on target throughout the three hours, especially when considering the plethora of stage "sets." First the old Faust's room with a real desk, a wheel chair, a crucifix and a spinning wheel, above which were projected on separated scrims the spinning wheel, the crucifix and a treasure box: symbolic of old, good and evil. Then, for each scene change, the projection quickly morphed into: a village square, the front of Marguerite's house (reportedly a copy of Schamberger's house in Germany), two different fields of flowers, the nave of a large church, and others--all interconnected by moving us through a sort of time warp dominated by a five-pointed star encasing a pentagon. It was Schamberger who made this production memorable. May 4 and 6; Clowes Memorial Hall

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