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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2005

Even though it's in French, opera 'Faust' speaks to young audience members

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC
Findlay students Kelly Tesnow, left, Kelly Krucki, and Alexa Chester discuss their reaction to seeing <i>Faust</i>. Findlay students Kelly Tesnow, left, Kelly Krucki, and Alexa Chester discuss their reaction to seeing <i>Faust</i>.
FRASER / BLADE Enlarge

Anthony Hunter, a fourth-year French student and senior at Sylvania Northview High School, doesn't know much about opera. But when the school's French Club decided to attend a performance of composer Charles Gounod's Faust, which is sung in French, he was willing to give it a try.

Anthony was one of some 630 area students some dressed in jeans, others in sport coats or formal gowns who turned up at the Valentine Theatre earlier this month to watch the dress rehearsal of Toledo Opera's Faust production, which has its final performance this afternoon.

It was a diverse bunch. Most had never seen an opera before, but a few were already experts. Bowsher High School junior Cohann Barrett, still dressed as a courtier from his school's afternoon performance of Cinderella, complained about Toledo Opera's many cuts. In particular, he was smarting from the absence of a favorite chorus.

Before the show, kids joked in the lobby, an attitude that swept into the theater. A case in point: as the lights when down, someone in the orchestra failed to stifle the urge to cough. The students, presumagly lessoned beforehand on the various etiquettes of the concert hall, found this a delightful faux pas. Within seconds, coughs echoed throughout the hall.

That was the last laugh for a while, however.

Moments later, the silver-haired maestro Thomas Conlin arrived in the pit, took a quick bow, and started up the orchestra.

The curtain rises on the dreary scene of Faust at his desk. Cast in shades as gray as his hair and surrounded by philosophical tomes, the dour old man contemplates suicide. Life has passed him by. Or at least it has until, in a moment of singular inspiration, Faust conjures up the Mephistopheles and decides to sell his soul for youth.

It's a lousy deal, of course, but Gounod s philosopher is no accountant. Nor, as events will show, is he the brightest bulb on the block.

Bolstered by Mephistopheles, Faust abandons his books and embarks on various adventures of love and mayhem. His first victim is the na ve Marguerite, whom he seduces. (Some months later, and goaded on by Mephistopheles, Faust finds cause to murder her brother.)

Much to the delight of Mephistopheles, Marguerite s world presently unravels. She murders her love child and is sentenced to death. An afterlife in hell seems certain, but a band of angels intervenes and takes her to heaven.

Tedious stuff for a teenager, I would have thought. And indeed, Findlay High School junior Alexa Chester who knew the story and a bit of the opera s history, if not much of the music worried before the performance that staying awake might be a problem.

It wasn t, however. In fact, every student with whom I spoke found the entire experience invigorating.

They particularly liked the singing, and especially the fact that what they were hearing actually came directly from the people on stage, not from some prerecorded track or even mediated by microphones and speakers.

The stage and sets were pretty cool, too, they said. A whole lot better than ours in the school gym, said Toledo Christian School sophomore Dorothy Jarchow, an observation seconded by friends, Paulette Bongratz, Kristen Masters, and Becky Smith.

Students did find some shortcomings, however.

Even transformed, Faust, played by tenor Jianyi Zhang, didn t seem particularly youthful, noted Findlay High School junior Kelly Krucki, whose observations were seconded by others.

Females in general showed a keen eye for social impropriety, noting that even the rejuvenated Faust seemed a lot older than

Marguerite old enough to make the whole relationship downright creepy. Maybe that helps explain why they were also so pleased that the angels showed up at the end and saved Marguerite.

Expanding on topics related to the art of love, I also queried several young women on a peripheral aspect of the evening.

My question: Would being invited to an opera make for a good date?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, were the various answers, though most thought that it would take a pretty classy guy even to think of such an outing.

Amid the post-performance rush, I couldn t find French student Anthony Hunter, but I am sure he understood virtually everything that was sung. Even if his ears occasionally failed him, he could just glance up and read the projected English translation.

Toledo Opera presents its final performance of Faust at 2 this afternoon at the Valentine Theatre. Tickets range from $25 to $60, $10 for students, and may be available at the door, though the hall is close to being sold out.

Contact Steven Cornelius at: scornelius@theblade.com or 419-724-6152.



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