A Supersized Faust with a Magnificent Marguerite

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Gounod, Faust: Soloists, National Theatre Brno Ballet, Chorus and Orchestra/Marko Ivanović (conductor), Brno Exhibition Centre – Pavilion P, Brno, 26.5.2018. (RP)

Brno Exhibition Centre – Pavilion P © Rick Perdian

Faust- José Manuel
Méphistophélès – Ondrej Mráz
Marguerite – Jana Šrejma Kačírková
Valentin – Pavol Remenár
Siébel – Václava Krejčí Houskov
Wagner – Miroslav Procházka
Marthe – Jitka Zerhauová
Barber – Robert Kellner

Director – Jiří Heřman
Set Designer – Pavel Svoboda
Costume Designer – Lenka Polášková
Lighting Designe – Daniel Tesař
Choreographer – Jan Kodet
Chorus Master – Pavel Koňárek
Dramaturgy – Patricie Částková

I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about the notion of staging Gounod’s Faust in a modern, multipurpose, 12,000 square meter exhibition hall. It is not one of those operas that lends itself to spectacle. My fears, however, were unfounded as the National Theatre Brno didn’t go that route. Jiří Heřman staged an opera, not a visual extravaganza and, more importantly, conductor Marko Ivanović mastered the acoustics of the vast space.

The concept was minimalistic with Heřman confining most of the action to a circle of light directly in the center of the hall. A few green architectural elements suggested Marguerite’s house and garden. Three large towers came into play during the final act, providing the opportunity for aerobic exercise for the three principals. Downsized a bit, the production could easily work in an opera house.

Lighting and video did much to delineate the space and set the mood. The bouquet of flowers that Siébel gathers for Marguerite evolved from a single petal into cascades of irises that filled the hall. Rows of candles were placed in front of the stage, with which the chorus would create the church where Marguerite seeks solace. With most of the hall kept as dark as possible, the distractions caused by the comings and goings of the chorus and dancers were kept to a minimum.

In Czech the opera is entitled Faust a Markéta, and with Jana Šrejma Kačírková as Marguerite the first two words could have been scratched out. Rightly surmising that deft coloratura and sparkling tone in the ‘Jewel Song’ might best be saved for another day, she relied instead on her strong dramatic instincts. Kačírková moved like a dancer, racing up and down the tallest of the towers, from which she tossed her baby to the gasps of the townsfolk below, with amazing speed. In the third act trio, her voice soared thrillingly through the hall, totally eclipsing the two men.

It was no mean feat to outshine Ondrej Mráz as Méphistophélès. Dressed all in black, he was a sinister presence with sinewy movements and a sonorous voice. His nasal French clouded his upper range, but overall it is an impressive instrument. One of Heřman’s few directorial missteps was to place him on top of a tower for the Incantation Scene. It was left to the orchestra to create the sensuous atmosphere that enveloped Marguerite and Faust, with little assistance from Mráz’s disembodied voice.

Faust’s magical transformation from age to youth was accomplished by grooming, attended to in a barber’s chair as Méphistophélès made his appearance amidst the town folk. The physical transformation didn’t quite do the trick. It wasn’t that José Manuel couldn’t be heard, but rather that he seemed daunted by the space and was ill at ease moving about it. He was an observer more than a participant in the drama and made little impact overall.

The same can’t be said for Jitka Zerhauová, who raced about breathlessly as Marthe, keeping her floppy hat on her head by sheer willpower. She greedily helped herself to some of the jewels. Upon receiving word of her husband’s death, she was off to the races. Zerhauová even took her bow in character: a zany, lusty gal, more than a match for the devil.

Václava Krejčí Housková likewise had little problem making an impact as Siébel; her rich mezzo-soprano carried effortlessly through the hall. If she was a bit too shapely to be convincing as a teenage boy, her evolution from lovesick lad to hero was nonetheless compelling.

As Valentin, Pavol Remenár was every inch a soldier, resolutely marching about in his uniform. His sound was too woolly to do full justice to ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’, but thereafter gained steadily in focus and intensity, culminating in an impressive final, fatal confrontation with Faust. Wagner doesn’t have much to sing, but Miroslav Procházka has a voice that was clear, true and strong. He left an impression.

The orchestra sat in a three-sided chipboard box, open on one side and with no top. Acoustically, it worked perfectly. Their sound emerged focused and transparent, and balance was never an issue. The interplay between the solo violin and Manuel during ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’ was stunning for its beauty and ease.

As the National Theatre opted for the full five-act version of Faust, Ivanović and his orchestra could relax in the Walpurgis Night ballet music, with no need to worry about balance, just scale. The dancers were literally the devil’s playmates — lithe, carefree and hedonistic — dressed in black like their master. It was one of the highlights of the evening.

It fell to the chorus to fill the stage, and they did so enthusiastically. They moved exceptionally well, although placing the dancers at the front of the stage clearly helped create the illusion of precision. In the Soldier’s Chorus, however, the men were undercut by Heřman’s fussy staging. They began strong, but their sound dissipated as they lolled on the floor being undressed by their women.

Necessity has propelled National Opera Brno into exploring alternative performance venues; its home, the Janáček Theatre, has been undergoing extensive renovations since last summer. It is slated to be ready to open in time for the 6th International Opera and Music Festival Janáček Brno 2018 in the fall. The festival commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic by presenting the complete works of Leoš Janáček, who made his home in Brno.

In the meantime, there is an opportunity to catch Smetana’s Libuše at the Brno Exhibition Centre. The opera has the distinction of having opened the National Theatre Prague twice, first on 11 June 1881 and twelve years later after it was rebuilt following a disastrous fire. Once again, Jiří Heřman will be the director.

Rick Perdian

More information on the National Opera Brno’s new production of Smetana’s Libuše click here. Details about the 6th International Opera and Music Festival Janáček Brno 2018 can be found here.

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