TAMPA — Faust is one of the great universal stories, as compelling today as when it first surfaced in the middle ages: Make me young again, and I'll sell you my soul, the old doctor pleads to the devil Mephistopheles, who is glad to accommodate.
Gounod's musical drama, loosely drawn from Goethe's play, winds up the season for Opera Tampa with an entertaining production that boasts a strong cast, especially soprano Rachel Watkins as Marguerite, the naive object of Faust's lust, and bass Mark Doss as Mephistopheles.
Doss, with his sweetly expressive upper register and idiomatic French, dominated Friday's performance, playing the devil as a rakish man about town. Poor Faust, sung by tenor Vale Rideout, making his debut in the role, never had a chance. Rideout was slow to work his way into character as the bearded scholar, but after being transformed into an ardent swain, he hit a delicate high note in his aria to Marguerite's innocence that won the audience over to his side.
Watkins, also debuting in her role, looked ideal as a chaste girl. She brought an unforced, almost conversational style of singing to Marguerite's complex three-part aria in the garden scene that was the highlight of the evening. Her voice fit beautifully into the layered textures of Gounod's orchestration.
In the finale, Marguerite, in prison for killing her child, was redeemed to the sound of a celestial chorus and ushered into heaven by two angelic children and a Christ figure. This was typical of David Lefkowich's staging, which used lots of pyrotechnics and smoke. The fateful tryst between Faust and Marguerite had striking atmospherics of smoke and lighting. Later, all the smoke got out of hand.
The production also has the excellent mezzo-soprano Elspeth Kincaid in the pants role of Siebel; baritone Guido LeBron as a suitably noble, if thickheaded, Valentin; and mezzo-soprano Cheri Rose Katz as Marthe, a comic foil to Mephistopheles.
The chorus has much to do in Faust, including Act 4's stirring, Verdiesque Gloire immortelle, and under chorus master John Smith it acquitted itself well. Fittingly, Gounod's score to the allure of eternal youth was conducted by Anton Coppola, who, at 92, seems to have made his own deal with the devil. The orchestra played splendidly for him.
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Opera Tampa is bringing back two popular sopranos in its 2009-10 season, which was announced before Friday's performance. Watkins will sing the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor Nov. 20 and 22. Superstar Renee Fleming will give her second concert for the company and sing with the orchestra Jan. 26.
Six U.S. opera companies have folded in the troubled economy, including Orlando Opera last week. Opera Tampa will mark its 15th season by cutting back, with one fewer full production than in 2008-09. Puccini's La Rondine will star soprano Rochelle Bard April 23 and 25. Company apprentices will be featured in concert March 28. Tenor Marcello Giordani will headline a benefit May 16.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.