Devilishly Satisfying

Dayton Opera produces compelling ‘Faust’

Perhaps the spell of Dayton Opera’s impending 50th anniversary season is already working its magic because the organization’s current Faust, which opened Saturday, April 10 at the Schuster Center, seems to be a banner celebration production. Gounod’s masterwork has captivated and stirred audiences for over 150 years, and the Dayton Opera’s compelling production shows why. Capitalizing on the devilish aspects of the opera, the evening begins with fire baton twirlers outside the Schuster Center while volunteers sporting little red horns parade inside with placards.  On opening night costumed chorus members strolled through the Wintergarden while the talented students of the Stivers School for the Arts Jazz Orchestra provided some heavenly pre-show entertainment.

Despite a couple of minor opening night fluffs, members of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra sounded superb under the precise baton of Joseph Mechavich, who led them with insight and intensity.  The orchestra sounds particularly virtuosic in the music accompanying Mephistopheles’ spells, and throughout the work Mechavich keeps a close rein on tempo and volume, supporting and heightening the drama while never covering the singers.

The cast is remarkably strong and, to give the devil his due, Kirk Eichelberger is a standout as Mephistopheles.  Stepping in on rather short notice for an indisposed David Michael, Eichelberger commands instant attention with his resonant bass and riveting stage presence.  The sinuous, almost feline quality of his movements and his ability to fully inhabit his character bring to the drama a delicious sense of menace and malevolence that never flags. Eichelberger is particularly memorable at a number of points in the opera, including his brisk “Song of the Golden Calf,” the gripping church confrontation with Marguerite in which he appears shirtless under his cape, his sardonic serenade to the heroine, and the urgent final scene in which he and Faust urge Marguerite to flee her prison cell and impending execution.

As Marguerite, the woman for whom Faust trades his soul, soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird is both lovely to behold and to hear.  Her character deepens through the opera, from her early vocal expressions of girlish delight in the “Jewel Song” to her later impassioned duets with Faust, her terrified attempts to pray in the church scene, and her galvanizing final confrontation with Faust and Mephistopheles as the unholy duo seek to rescue her.

In the title role, tenor Scott Piper sings Faust with fervor and a keen sense of musical phrasing, varying his powerful delivery with lighter vocal registration as needed.  Some of his best moments include his “A moi, les plaisirs” as he exults at the prospect of youth and love, the beautiful “Laisse-moi contempler ton visage” sung with Marguerite, and his part in the final trio that helps bring Faust to its hair-raising conclusion.

The debuts in this production are consistently of high caliber. Baritone Kyungmook Kim gives his all and makes a strong impression in his Dayton debut as Valentin, Marguerite’s brother.  His best moments include his full-throated Act I aria, “Avant de quitter ces lieux,” and his merciless cursing of his visibly pregnant sister after he loses his duel with Faust.

Audrey Walstrom makes an unusually effective Siebel, the love-stricken youth who pines for Marguerite. Her fresh, clear mezzo-soprano and unaffected boyish bearing combine to make an ideal Siebel.  She moves well onstage and her finest turn is her graceful aria, “Faites-lui mes aveux,“ beautifully sung as she prepares to leave a bouquet for Marguerite. Also impressive in his Dayton debut is Charles Jebaily as Wagner, Valentin’s friend.  His agile, engaging acting and resonant baritone call for further hearing. Deborah Nansteel presents a delightful Martha, and her rich mezzo-soprano and flair for comedy add to the delightful quartet in which Faust woos Marguerite while newly-widowed Martha goes after the all-too-tempting tempter, Mephistopheles.

The festive crowd scenes are greatly enhanced by the joyous dancing and acrobatics of the talented young dancers of the Gem City Ballet, deftly choreographed by Barbara Pontecorvo. Prepared by Jeffrey Powell, the Dayton Opera Chorus acquit themselves admirably in the catchy but tricky Fair scene, the resonant and rousing “Soldiers’ Chorus,” and the thundering “Christ is Risen” chorus that brings the opera to a thrilling close.

Director Kathleen Clawson works her magic throughout the production, conjuring up one memorable scene after another.  Particularly effective is the sword fight between Faust and Valentin, with Mephistopheles intervening with surprising cleverness.  Aided by the best and spookiest set of the production, evocative lighting by John Rensel, and great performances by Bird and Eichelberger, the eerie church scene is an unsettling masterpiece.

Of the various Faust productions I’ve seen over the years, this one boasts the most effective yet simple ascension for Marguerite I’ve yet encountered, featuring her standing, washed in brilliant light as the heavens through which she soars are projected behind her.

Don’t miss this fiendishly good production.

Faust continues Friday, April 16 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 18 at 3 p.m. at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets. Tickets are $19-$96 and can be purchased by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visiting www.ticketcenterstage.com

Reach DCP opera critic Eric Street at contactus@daytoncitypaper.com

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