SAN FRANCISCO — Charles Gounod's sometimes poignant, sometimes syrupy setting of Goethe's "Faust" has survived many indignities in the past 127 years: wholesale revisions of the gushing score and prettified text, odd interpolations, eccentric interpretations, careless productions, bizarre ego indulgences, periods of overpopularity, periods of benign neglect.
This season at the War Memorial Opera House, it has survived a number of casting emergencies, in addition to the disadvantages inherent in a half-hearted revival of a production that was dreary even when it was new in 1970.
Wednesday night, if all had gone as planned, the title role would have been sung by the Czech tenor Peter Dvorsky, and his diabolical adversary should have been the British basso Robert Lloyd. All did not go as planned.
An indisposition reportedly had forced Dvorsky to cancel the first three performances of the season, for which Terence McEwen was lucky enough to engage a superstellar substitute--Alfredo Kraus. On this occasion, however, neither Dvorsky nor Kraus was available. To the rescue flew another luxurious replacement, Luis Lima.
A throat ailment has plagued Lloyd from the start. He got through the first performance only with the assistance of an understudy's offstage voice in the church scene. Paul Plishka of the Met, lingering around the Bay for priestly duties in a disastrous "Forza del Destino," impersonated the mellifluous devil in the two subsequent performances.
Wednesday, with hardly time for a "me voici," came Mephistopheles No.4--Justino Diaz.
The surprise wasn't that the performance turned out to be brilliant against the odds. In most respects, this was just another workaday "Faust." Under the potentially shaky circumstances, the surprise was that there was any "Faust" at all.
Despite the late shifts in personnel, San Francisco mustered a smooth, eminently professional performance. Nothing went seriously wrong. No one collapsed. No one got lost. Everyone knew his or her (I promise never, never to say their ) job. One must be grateful for basic favors.
Lima cut an exceptionally youthful and romantic figure on the stage. He sang, much of the time, with golden-toned ardor, and, apart from some less than idiomatic French, phrased with style and intelligence.
Nevertheless, one could not overlook certain moments of unsteady vocalism, including a precarious, loud high C in "Salut, demeure chaste et pure." One hopes Lima's assumption of more dramatic roles has not taken a serious toll on a voice that should be one of the most beautiful lyric instruments of the day.
Diaz also seems to be undergoing something of a vocal identity crisis. After years of distinguished service in the bass repertory, he is now attempting to invade the lofty realm of the Verdi baritone. Franco Zeffirelli's film perversion of "Otello" casts him as Iago and, with the help of some judicious transposition, he recently managed a Macbeth in Pittsburgh. (Los Angeles will see him in the role next year.)
Mephisto represents a step back to the lower depths of range and tessitura. It doesn't seem a comfortable step. Diaz' tone is still dark, if not particularly large or lustrous. But it thins out alarmingly at the bottom.
Dramatically, he opts for comfortable elegant-devil cliches. Although he isn't very debonair or very dangerous, he certainly is competent.
The regularly scheduled principals offered no compensatory revelations.
Mary Jane Johnson introduced a Marguerite healthy and hefty in sound as well as in appearance. She conveyed little of the demure, charming, vulnerable peasant girl defined by tradition, and she lacked the grace (as well as the trill) needed for a memorable Jewel Song.
She did exert some elemental force in the later, tragic scenes, however, especially when the line did not rise too high.
Although Alan Titus was not in his freshest, most expansive vocal form, he sang Valentin's arias with a solid tone and decent expression.
The supporting cast included Judith Christin as a properly giddy Dame Marthe, Kathryn Cowdrick as an assertive, somewhat edgy Siebel and Mark Delavan as a sonorous, limber Wagner.
Jean Fournet, a presumably enlightened veteran of many Parisian wars, conducted lightly and limply. The orchestra played rather sloppily for him. The chorus sang feebly.
Francesca Zambello, the new stage director, was saddled with Wolfram Skalicki's obtrusive scrims and Medieval window-dressing sets. She couldn't do much about the bargain-basement drabness. But she hardly helped matters with fussy crowd-scene distractions and textual contradictions. Marguerite's spinning scene, for instance, was reinstated, but her spinning wheel--clearly delineated in the music--was deleted.
Most distressing was the new kitsch-postcard finale, which requires the heroine to ascend a stairway to Heaven amid wispy clouds, glowing light and flickering stars. The only elements missing were a halo and flapping wings.
Maybe next time. . . .