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Faust is despondent.
Old, sour, a self-proclaimed failure, he has fallen hard for the sweet, young Marguerite.
A May-December matchup, maybe?
Not likely. Faust is no Mr. GotRocks.
Should he drink the poison?
Enter the ultimate bad guy, Mephistopheles, with a better offer. Maybe.
In front of the aging philosopher he dangles an irresistible opportunity: ink a deal with the devil and lose decades, regain charm, win the maiden. Plus, he gets the clever Mephistopheles for his willing servant — at least while he lives and breathes.
Faust bites and the rest is history, real history, where nothing goes right for Faust or Marguerite, where, in the end, the devil gets his due.
You bet; this Northern European folk tale, finally fixed on paper by German poet/philosopher Johann Goethe, is still in demand as a plot device today — consider so many movies, TV shows, even the new Captain America film, with Robert Redford on the dark side.
In the hands of French composer Charles Gounod, Faust emerged a gorgeous opera with an edgy libretto from Jules Barbier and Michel Carre.
The Toledo Opera will bring this five-act masterpiece to life in performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Valentine Theatre.
Boasting a star-studded cast, an internationally renowned stage director, and the popular James Meena conducting the Toledo Symphony, this Faust will take on a fresh look.
“We updated it,” says Bernard Uzan, the director, who shaped a contemporary version for the Arizona Opera in 2011.
New settings – a nightclub, a boutique, an asylum – and costumes and stagecraft will bring the timeless tale from the 16th century into the 21st.
“Sometimes it’s a little silly in other operas, the period look,” explains Uzan, who adds that updating operas is not his typical approach. “For example, in the middle of the Scene I, the waltz scene was out of date a long time ago.”
Instead, Uzan, a French native with doctorates in literature and philosophy from the University of Paris, has tapped 20th century literary lights – James Joyce, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, for example – using their language, key words and phrases, projected onto backdrops during the action.
“I’m using words to sustain the comments, to extend the action,” he said. His hope is to bring the entire work “closer to what we feel today.”
Uzan has directed some 375 productions in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. He ran L”Opera de Montreal from 1988-1992, and wrote the libretto for Cyrano de Bergerac, for Michigan Opera, commissioning its director, David DiChiera to write the score. The opera premiered in Detroit in 2007 and played in Philadelphia and Tampa. In 2008, his first English language novel, The Shattered Sky, was published in French and English by Enigma Books.
For tenor Shawn Mathey, making his mainstage local debut, Faust represents an artistic shift. Famed here and abroad for his lyrical work in Mozart operas, he sought a new career challenge. This opera gives him the chance to show how he handles major shifts in his character.
“You have to play a man who’s older, to physicalize a man who has given up,” says Mathey, of this latest production.
Then, after striking his deadly deal, Mathey’s title character becomes young again.
“We’re playing him as if he doesn’t remember what he was. He’s reborn psychologically as well as physically,” explained the tall, easygoing singer, who was tenor soloist for the TSO’s smash Ode to Joy debut in Huntington Center April 6.
During a recent rehearsal, Uzan was urging Mathey to go even more against type, to be more self-centered, to “be more French.”
Uzan pushed his cast which includes soprano Janinah Burnett (Marguerite) mezzo Alta Dantzler (Martha), and bass-baritone Jamie Offenbach (Mephistopheles) to act out the feelings of their characters, the better to drive home the Faustian message.
His mantra: “There is no distance when pure human emotions are involved. Opera touches us because of the emotions it brings.”
For Offenbach, brought in to replace the original Mephistopheles, Russian bass Grigory Soloviov, playing the devil is a reprise he approaches with devilish energy and cool calculation.
Tall and arrow-slim, with a wicked grin, he seems, physically born to the part. Bad guys are part of his specialty in operas across the U.S. and abroad.
Making his local debut in the Toledo production are baritone Keith Harris, as Valentine, Marguerite’s brother. Harris first sang at the Metropolitan Opera during its 2010-2011 season, returning this year.
Also new to town is Burnett, who played Mimi in Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Boheme in Los Angeles, and debuted at the Met in 2013. Bass-baritone Edward Hanlon will portray Wagner, a student.
Also making her Toledo Opera debut is Molly Bock, a graduate student at the University of Toledo who has performed in the Midwest and in Rome. She’ll carry the “pants” role of Siebel, a youth.
The Toledo Opera Chorus will be onstage in many scenes, coached by Kevin Bylsma, who also serves as rehearsal pianist.
Tickets for Faust are $30-75 at www.toledoopera.org or 419-255-7464.