Faust builds a devilishly dark and intense world at the Vancouver Opera Festival

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      By Charles Gounod. A Vancouver Opera Festival production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, April 27. Continues May 2 and 5

      The Vancouver Opera Festival’s new Faust is a darker-than-usual affair, a broody piece that, on opening night, was a dramatic contrast to the spring sunshine, patio bar, and giant inflated “VOF” letters on the plaza just outside the theatre.

      And to think Charles Gounod’s work is often thought of as comic opera. Not here. A big part of the effect comes from Olivier Landreville’s austere dark-grey set (borrowed from L’Opéra de Montréal). An ominous series of floor-to-ceiling, monolithic bookcases that form Faust’s opening library scene cleverly turn to become alleyways and, by the end, prison walls enclosing the doomed. Gerald King’s shadowy lighting adds to the sinister feel, and the early scenes’ touch of red is a nod to the hell that awaits.

      But this all-Canadian-cast Faust, helmed by François Racine, also finds its depth in the music and acting—most notably in Marguerite, sung by stellar Vancouver-bred soprano and crowd favourite Simone Osborne. In the opera, loosely based on Goethe’s classic play, Marguerite can sometimes come across as a naive ditz. After Faust promises his soul to the devil, Méphistophélès helps Faust seduce the pious young woman, impregnate her, and then cast her aside. But here, as Gounod probably intended, she’s the very centre of the churning moral conflict; unlike Faust, who easily sells his soul, she fights Méphistophélès’s advances to the bitter end. Even her descent into madness avoids hysteria, and becomes a rational new form of war against Satan.

      The tone is set from the very beginning, with conductor Jonathan Darlington leading a sublime, deeply felt overture that teases out every nuance of light and dark from the orchestra, all with the fluidity of spring water.

      The opening scene, of Faust bemoaning his loss of youth, is strong too, tenor David Pomeroy a roiling mass of despondence and anger. When bass Robert Pomakov’s Méphistophélès arrives, throwing a long, Nosferatu-like shadow across the room from the doorway, things really get rolling—and the powerhouse duo brings resonant life to the duet “À moi les plaisirs”.

      Simone Osborne in Faust.
      Tim Matheson

      Pomakov has evil fun here, becoming much more than a dapper caricature and bringing a real physicality to the role, leaping on tables to scare the bejesus out of villagers, and ingratiating himself to Faust. (“At your service,” he hisses.) Osborne brings emotional depth, torment, and passion to her arias, her rich soprano opening beautifully into the role.

      At the helm, Racine makes some bold choices, especially in the second act. Standout moments include a chiaroscuro crowd, pointing in judgment as Marguerite walks the gauntlet with her illegitimate bundle of joy; hooded figures stalking her in a darkened church; and a truly chilling scene where a shard of moonlight catches the blade that Marguerite, maniacal and trembling, wields over her baby. While Faust’s final walk to eternal damnation is a bit anticlimactic here, her ascent is strong in a way that transcends religion and its literal ideas of heaven and hell.

      Previous productions of Faust have given audiences more eye candy, as when director Nicholas Muni staged a boldly surreal version in 2006. Here, the grey set can feel oppressive and unrelenting over three hours plus—despite the fact it’s a conceptual marvel; even Marguerite’s garden, usually a bloom-filled oasis, feels bleak.

      But few Fausts we’ve seen in Vancouver over the years have offered up music this profoundly performed or characterizations this intense.