N.C. Opera’s “Faust” Boasts Met Regulars, Cutting Edge Projections


Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?

By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Raleigh – April 24, 2011

Opera is the most expensive art form to produce and it has a reputation as entertainment only for the elite. Eric Mitchko, general director of N. C. Opera, was confronted by both challenges when planning the company’s production of Gounod’s popular “Faust,” playing April 28 and 30 in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall.

Although the company presented Puccini’s “Tosca” last October in Memorial Auditorium with full sets and orchestra, the company’s budget limitations and desire for new audiences led to some unusual staging elements and ideas for “Faust.”

This production was originally scheduled as a standard concert version (orchestra on stage, singers down front), a money-saving format the company has employed there previously for two Mozart operas. But Mitchko felt this tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil for renewed youth needed something extra to better characterize the battle of good and evil and to appeal to a non-traditional audience.

Director James Marvel came up with the idea of projecting moving images on a giant screen above the stage, a variation on the operatic settings he and installation artist S. Katy Tucker have created for productions around the country. Their concept is influenced by German Expressionism, a nod to the brooding context of the Goethe play on which Gounod’s opera is based. The images, both still and video, won’t attempt to set the scene but rather evoke the changing moods and situations.

Speaking by phone from her Brooklyn studio, Tucker explained her approach. “I used my art book collection and James had a massive list of things for me to look at and watch before starting,” she said, “including F. W. Murnau’s silent film of ‘Faust,’ which James suggested as a central reference point.” But Tucker, who interned at the Metropolitan Opera and has created projections for the Washington Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Ring,” says music is the driving force for her inspiration. “I like the emotional side of a story and the music in ‘Faust’ is extremely easy to relate to. But some of it is rather flowery and light, so I’m juxtaposing some dark imagery to reflect the idea of selling one’s soul, something that’s as dramatic as it gets!”

In addition to the images, Marvel has added an intriguing variation for the supertitles, the text translations usually projected above the stage. “I’ve written them myself, “Marvel said by phone from New York City, “trying to synthesize the poetic essence of each page of the score with one title. So if the concept is ‘day is dawning,’ I haven’t translated every subsequent line about birds singing and breezes blowing. The words will appear as part of the projected image, the first time that’s ever been done to my knowledge.”

While Mitchko hopes the contemporary production concept will attract non-regular operagoers, he’s banking on his stellar line-up of performers to satisfy traditionalists. Tenor Dimitri Pittas (Faust) and baritone Liam Bonner (Valentin) have both been seen recently in Metropolitan Opera HD telecasts in movie theaters and on TV around the world. Soprano Mary Dunleavy (Marguerite) has sung the leads in “La Traviata” and “Rigoletto” frequently at the Met, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn (Méphistophélès) is a regular at Lyric Opera of Chicago. N. C. Opera artistic director Timothy Myers is conducting.

If this “Faust” straddles the line between traditional and contemporary, the final presentation of this season, Britten’s “Turn of the Screw,” is definitely in the latter category. Based on the Henry James novella, the 1954 opera is a gripping ghost story and psychological thriller. This intimate chamber opera, playing May 12 and 13 in Durham’s Carolina Theatre, fulfills one of the company’s mission of utilizing the wealth of vocal and creative talent in the Triangle. The cast includes soprano Andrea Edith Moore, faculty member at UNC, Raleigh native, tenor Benjamin Robinson, and young Asher Philips, member of the Raleigh Boychoir. Jerome Davis of Burning Coal Theatre directs and rising star Keitaro Harada conducts.

“I think the template set for this season will work well in the future,” says Mitchko. The company has just announced its 2011-2012 offerings:  a fully staged “Carmen,” a concert version of “Il Trovatore” and a chamber staging of Philip Glass’ “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

[a shorter version of this story appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on April 24, 2011]