Saturday, October 29, 2011

Connecticut Concert Opera brings Faust to West Hartford

Currently in its 20th season, Connecticut Concert Opera presented a semi-staged production of Gounod’s Faust at the Hoffman Auditorium at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford. For all its entertaining waltzes and endlessly memorable tunes this opera is a significant challenge. For one thing it is extremely long, even with standard cuts, and it requires singers who have endurance, concentration, and the ability to shift musical styles convincingly.

Artistic Director and Conductor Doris Lang Kosloff helped shape the content by grouping the opera into two “Acts,” with one central intermission. The first “Act” grouped the scene with Faust in his study, the Kermesse fair, and the Garden scene, the second collection grouped the traditional acts IV and V. Because there were no complicated set changes Kosloff was able to pull this off by simply leaning on tempos and moving action forward. She cut Marguerite’s spinning song but performed the church scene before the death of Valentin, as notated by Gounod but often performed in reverse order. She cut Walpurgis Night, which is standard, and trimmed back “Vin ou Bière,” but most music lovers would not have been able to detect any other cuts. This was a full-blooded Faust, and it transcended the sum of its details.

Soprano Jacqueline Quirk sang Marguerite mixed sweet and dark colors during the first “Act” but unleashed significant dramatic power after intermission. This vocal duality is unusual and gave us strong insight into her character (both Quirk’s and Marguerite’s). The first glimpse of this power was given during the Jewel Song—just after the extended trill when Quirk sang the scale that rises up to G-sharp. She accented the top with such intensity I actually saw several people in the audience flinch—both times! She could also sing gently with wonderfully floating lyricism. During the reminiscences of the prison scene, when Marguerite recalled the first time she met Faust, Quirk’s sound danced quietly with the orchestra in D major. She left the stage at the end of the evening to follow a stairway to heaven projected onto the back wall.

The props were simple, as appropriate in concert opera, but Quirk sang The King of Thule while seated at a most beautiful spinning wheel which I understand was an authentic early 19th century artifact from the Wood Memorial Library and Museum.

Tenor Michael-Paul Krubitzer improved throughout the evening as his voice warmed and opened. He seemed uncomfortable in his hooded headgear during the bargaining scene with Méphistophélès that opened the opera. At any rate the hood forced him to lift his head more than necessary and his sound was much better after his “youthful” transformation. Krubitzer developed fabulous presence with Quirk and their prison scene was memorable.

Graham Fandrei sang a confident Valentin. His ”O Sainte Medaille” was lush and tender. Mezzo soprano Sondra Kelly pleased with Martha. She also was able to sing the ensembles without becoming lost in the mix, which is no easy task in this opera.

I liked Erica Jeski as Siébel. Jeski had homefield advantage (on an evening when homefield won the World Series) because she was raised in West Hartford and is currently a student at the Hartt School. Jeski was able to project a very credible C major personality in Faites-lui mes aveux. She is talented and has significant potential.

But the evening belonged to Kirk Eichelberger who played Méphistophélès. Eichelberger’s resonant voice filled the hall with every sound. He was placed within the orchestra during his entrance to both “acts” and so his sound seemed to emerge from the instruments themselves. Eichelberger went to devil school. He was witty at all the right times, moved in all the right ways, and was just scary enough at all the right times. He is an amazing musician.

I was so persuaded by Eichelberger that as I left the Hoffman Auditorium I was actually noticeably younger. I am still not completely sure what that will cost me. I’ll worry about that later.

Connecticut Concert Opera will present Faust again at 2:00 on Sunday, October 30 at the Hoffman Auditorium at Saint Joseph College. For additional information click here.

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