The controversy still rages: Is Gounod’s “Faust” the worst of all great operas or the best of all bad ones? The current Los Angeles Opera staging, a revival of a production (co-owned with the Chicago Lyric Opera) first seen in 1994, makes no attempt to answer the earthshaking question. On its own, however, it’s a helluva show.
Yes, the old imponderable mix of treacle and penny-dreadful diablerie — in its heyday the most-performed of all operas — still grips a willing audience in a love-hate relationship beyond rational explanation. All that’s required is a staging that makes no apologies for its obvious musical and dramatic absurdities; this the opera received in Frank Corsaro’s grandly flamboyant, gesture-laden production, whose broad outlines current director Christopher Harlan respectfully preserves. Once again the piercing redness of Mephistopheles’ cape comes over like the flames of hell; once again the flowers in Marguerite’s garden exude their seductive poison, like the calendar art in some exquisite Victorian parlor.
The superiority of the current “Faust” rerun to the original, however, is easily measured: a splendid cast, mostly of newcomers to the company, and a vigorous hand on the podium, also in an important debut. The most attention was focused on Samuel Ramey, who virtually owns the full range of devil-in-music portrayals in most houses these days, and he is terrific: sly, insinuating, lithe and wondrously resonant.
So, in their own ways, are the evening’s other principals: much-in-demand tenor Marcello Giordani and soprano Leontina Vaduva, both gifted with clean, unaffected vocal apparatus to make the best of Gounod’s pretty-pretty tunesmithing. In lesser roles two local stalwarts — Megan Dey-Toth as the adolescent Siebel and Malcolm MacKenzie as the pillar of righteousness Valentin — come across several levels above OK.
Aside from the hilariously awful “Walpurgis Night” ballet, whose loss nobody in their right mind could lament, the opera is given virtually uncut, even restoring a fourth-act aria for Siebel of no service to the singer or the drama.
That it fills its 3 1/2 hours without egregious sagging is the triumph, above all, of the eminently strong and sensible pacing by conductor Philippe Auguin in his American debut. In less worthy hands, “Faust” can easily end up as a communal snore, as it did under Lawrence Foster in 1994. This time there are reasons to stay awake.