FESTIVAL OPERA – Presents Charles Gounod’s FAUST

Devilish production plays the Lesher Center for the Arts
Featured cast members share their enthusiam for one of Grand Opera’s most popular works

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

“I get to play the Devil!  What’s not to like?” says Kirk Eichelberger, clearly relishing his upcoming turn as “Méphistophélès”. FESTIVAL OPERA presents Charles Gounod’s most enduring opera, Faust – opening Saturday night, August 8th at the Lesher Center for the Arts.  “I gallivant around the stage ruining people’s lives, then turn to the audience and laugh about it!” Eichelberger, making his ninth appearance with Festival Opera and the second this season, has performed the role for San Jose Opera and Opera Grand Rapids. Michael Morgan, Festival Opera’s artistic and music director, is one of his favorite conductors. “Singing for Michael,” says Eichelberger, “is just effortless. He is so in tune with me and perhaps I, in turn, am in tune with him to the point where it is just effortless music making. It is a rare thing to find in opera, and it makes me just want to sing for him all the time.”

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KIRK EICHELBERGER, as Méphistophélès (Opera Grand Rapids).
Photo, Dianne Caroll Burdick

Tenor Brian Thorsett turned down invitations by various companies to perform the role of “Faust” until finally persuaded by Michael Morgan that he was ready.  “My career up to this point,” he says, “has mostly centered on Baroque, Bel Canto and Mozart operas and oratorios – so, stylistically, this represents a tremendous departure for me. When Michael first offered me this role, I was hesitant, but after a few emails back and forth, he really convinced me it would be a good fit and that the orchestra will be tailored to fit with all of the cast’s talents. Not many do that.”

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BRIAN THORSETT, Tenor. The Witches’ Festival. Illustration, Norman Little

Once the former San Francisco Opera Merola participant signed on, he spent a month in Paris to prepare, including brushing up on his French and analyzing the original play for a deeper understanding of the opera’s overall architecture. “I love the way Gounod crafted dramatic, character-filled music – at the same time, writing beautiful convincing melodies.”  One of the biggest challenges to portraying the corruptible Faust, he says, is the first scene featuring the character’s physical and vocal transformation “from an older disenchanted man to a robust young lover.”

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KRISTIN CLAYTON, Soprano. Marguerite and the Jewels. Illustration, Norman Little

Soprano Kristin Clayton, former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, appears for the first time as the tragic heroine, “Marguerite”. The character’s double-set of arias from Act Three, Il était un Roi de Thulé and Air des bijoux are standard concert faire for lyric sopranos. “It’s very special when you find opera roles that feel suited specifically to your voice,” she says.  “Marguerite goes through such a range of emotions, from loneliness and vulnerability to succumbing to passion and desire – and, finally, confusion and unending torment.  And I love singing in French and adore the beautiful, romantic melodies throughout the opera.”

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EUGENE BRANCOVEANU, Baritone. Death of Valentine. Illustration, Norman Little

As the soldier, “Valentin” – Marguerite’s wary and protective brother – robust and handsome baritone Eugene Brancoveanu is the ideal choice. His 2009-10 season currently includes the role of “Marcello” in La bohème with Virginia Opera, and an appearance in recital with California’s prestigious San Francisco Performances concert series. In 2008-09 he returned to San Francisco Opera as “Belcore” in L’elisir d’amore; sang “Karnak” in Lalo’s Le Roi d’ys with the American Symphony Orchestra; “Count Almaviva” in Le nozze di Figaro with Livermore Valley Opera; as soloist in Elijah with University of California/Davis; and in Carmina Burana with Peninsula Symphony Orchestra. With the Los Angeles Philharmonic he continued his performing of Michael Tilson Thomas’ The Tomashevskys, a work which he premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2005-06, has reprised with the New World Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony, and which he performs again at the Tanglewood Music Center under Seiji Ozawa in summer 2009.

Rounding out the cast are Patrice Houston as “Marthe”, Erin Neff in the trouser-role of “Siébel”, and Zachary Gordin as “Wagner”. The creative team behind Faust includes stage direction by Michael Morgan, who will also conduct, choreography by assistant director Mark Foehringer and production design by Matthew Antaky.   To symbolize the modern relevance of Gounod’s classic morality tale, Morgan will feature his performers in contemporary dress.  “The story is timeless,” he says, “it doesn’t have to be set in any particular period.”

Rather than traditional three-dimensional sets, Faust will be staged with the illusion of physical environments – projected onto backdrops to create a magical interplay between story and setting.  In lieu of set changes, gradual dissolves will transport the audience visually through the story.  “It will be like the way you experience a sunrise,” says Morgan. “You don’t notice each different gradation of light, but at some point you realize the sky is bright and the sun is up. Our modern setting will begin with Faust as an old man living in a retirement facility. As a backdrop, we will use projections to show the effects of time on Faust’s surroundings, beginning with the wallpaper of his room, which will gradually transform into the vivid flowers of Marguerite’s garden and then decay. This happens over the course of the entire performance. As the garden decays, a spider web becomes superimposed on the flowers symbolizing the trap set for Faust by Méphistophélès.  This will be Festival Opera’s first use of large scale projections, as well as employing this kind of visual symbolism, to tell a story through both sound and light.”
 
Performances of Faust are scheduled for 8:00 pm on Saturday, August 8th, and Tuesday, August 11th; and at 2:00 pm on Sunday, August 16, 2009.  Location: Hofmann Theatre, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA.
Click here for more information: FESTIVAL OPERA

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CHARLES GOUNOD, Composer. Marguerite in the Cathedral. Illustration, Norman Little

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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