SAN DIEGO — Most opera companies play "Faust"--Gounod's sentimental, sugary and ever-popular perversion of Goethe's poetic epic--for easy sighs. They tend to take the pretty romantic cliches and pious simplifications on face value.
The production staged Saturday night by the San Diego Opera at the Civic Theatre seems to follow lazy convention much of the time. Francesca Zambello, the director, treats the characters as comfy stereotypes. She hides the prologue behind the hocus-pocus obfuscation of a scrim--a very crude, painterly scrim full of crimson squiggles and not-exactly-subliminal monster motifs.
In general, the sets designed by Earl Staley for Houston and Seattle, exult in old-fashion kitsch clutter. The Kermesse takes place beneath a quaintly massive umbrella of bucolic foliage, and the garden scene looks like a caricature of an illustration in the "Victor Book of the Opera" at the turn of the century.
Just when one wants to dismiss the enterprise as a naive and dusty ritual, however, Zambello and Staley come up with some provocative variations on familiar themes. They move the scenery in and out of focus at the devil's whim--or stagehands' bidding. They place the soldiers' homecoming in a bleak wintry landscape and reduce the church to a funeral bier for Valentin flanked by an ominous crucifix on a black stage. They intentionally invoke postcard pathos as the blighted heroine ascends a vaporous stairway to a canvas-billow heaven in the final apotheosis.
With each cumulative device, the self-conscious stagecraft suggests a wry comment on ancient conventions. Despite some rhetorical disparities, the manipulation of visual convention heightens pathos as the ancient drama progresses.
The operatic journey is a long one. Although the "Walpurgisnacht" ballet has been mercifully cut, Marguerite's spinning song (minus spinning wheel) has been reinstated, along with the accompanying aria for Siebel. The restorations prove dramatically useful and musically valid.
The credibility of the production was reinforced on this occasion by an exceptionally attractive, theatrically alert cast.
Richard Leech, who recently created something of a sensation in West Berlin as the altitudinous hero of Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots," brought freshness, ardor and relative finesse to the title role. If he sounded a bit breathy in the lower passages, he was able to cap "Salut, demeure" with an effortless and gleaming (needlessly loud) high C.
Diana Soviero, pretty as Marguerite despite an unflattering hat and wig, avoided the demure platitudes of a textbook medieval virgin. Although she could muster no trill for the Jewel Song, she sang with lyrical poise, articulated the French elegantly and acted--vocally as well as physically--with urgent conviction.
Ferrucio Furlanetto, the decidedly Italianate Mephistopheles, etched his lines in dark and plangent basso tone while bustling through his macabre charades with amiable jollity. There have been far more menacing devils, and subtler ones, too, but Furlanetto's bluff approach made solid sense in this context. He found a memorably giddy foil, moreover, in Judith Christin's Marthe Schwertlein.
David Malis offered a sympathetic, light-voiced Valentin. Jan Bunnell introduced an agreeably hearty Siebel. William Nolan did what can be done with the nebulous duties of Wagner.
The chorus, trained by Martin Wright, performed with striking flexibility and individuality. It also brought down the house, as always is the case, with the banalities of the soldiers' march. That march was enacted here, incidentally, with bitter irony that recalled the jolting Lavelli production at the Paris Opera.
Karen Keltner did little in the pit to suggest a probing expressive profile, but she sustained reasonable clarity and decent momentum. A bland, business-like "Faust" is still preferable to a stretched and soggy one.