Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Toledo Opera gives ‘Faust’ hip update

The New Testament cautions against pouring new wine into old wineskins, lest both be ruined.

Some Gospel interpreters even advise the opposite: enriching new wineskins with the far more desirable aged vintage.

For Toledo Opera's current production of Faust, playing this weekend, smart money is on the latter tactic. Served up in director Bernard Uzan's new wrapping, this classic 19th century morality tale benefits from a 21st century makeover.

Without changing Charles Gounod's lush, lyrical score or Michel Carre and Jules Barbier's harshly moralist libretto, Uzan's version offers scenes as if from Instagram: a hip nightclub, a lurid revivalist church, and, finally, the ultimate bad address: an asylum for the deranged.

Moreover, the Twitter-like panoply of catchwords and phrases, plus clever videos playing on a simple backdrop, add layers of action and help focus on the larger message: be careful what you ask for.

This talented cast assembled by conductor James Meena is led by Janinah Burnett (Marguerite), Jamie Offenbach (Mephistopheles), and Shawn Mathey (Faust). There are solid supporting characters and a very strong, youth-infused chorus. Meena's direction of the Toledo Symphony is superb as always.

Burnett and Offenbach are particularly strong dramatically, not to mention vocally.

Burnett has a creamy, even soprano that she shades most effectively to suit lyrics, from shy maiden to object of desire to disdained, discarded sister and lover. Her performances in The Jewel Song in Act II is sparkling and confident, making her final aria as the dejected, discarded vessel of men's desires even more convincing in its pathos.

Offenbach lives and breathes devilish energy, from his first appearance in the old, desperate Faust's study to his final departure with his new subject. He owns the stage the way he owns Faust and others.

Delighting in his power, he treats every trespass into a private life as the next step in some cosmic video game. I imagined British actor Russell Brand in the role – although he couldn't possible produce the edgy, dark bass-baritone Offenbach employed.

As the title character, Mathey starts out rather unimpressively, both vocally and dramatically, but grows into the part so that, by his demise, he owns the role convincingly. His smooth and resonant tenor covers the musical landscape gracefully.

As Valentin, Marguerite's brother, baritone Keith Harris generates a macho richness as a departing soldier, adding an edge to his role in the death scene where he blames his ills on his sister.

Worth a special mention is the affecting scene in Act III when Valentin and his fellow veterans straggle home from the front. Some don't return. Given today's ongoing U.S. military involvement around the world, the moment is powerful.

Mezzo Alta Dantzler is hysterical in the comic role of Marthe, leader of the local lonely hearts club who sees a bright future in a fling with Mephistopheles.

As Wagner, bass-baritone Edward Hanlon is sturdy. And as Siebel, Marguerite's lover wanna-be, Molly Bock is convincing in a pants role, her dark-toned mezzo satisfying for the most part.

A word of caution: new setting or not, this Uzan production will startle or perhaps even disturb, as it strips away the historical cushion and reveals, in some stark, dark scenes which could be lifted from the tabloids, the essentially mysogynist message underlying such beautiful music.

Curtains are at 7:30 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets for Faust are $30-70 at or 419-255-7464.

This review is based on a final dress rehearsal of ‘Faust’ on Wednesday night.

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