Greed in the age of biotech

West Bay Opera's 'Faust' isn't the way grandma remembers it, but it's a fascinating production

With its champagne appetite on a beer budget, Palo Alto's ever-surprising West Bay Opera now takes a mid-19th century war-horse and launches it deep into the 21st century. Last weekend, the company opened its production of "Faust" at Lucie Stern Theatre. This most popular of all French operas by Charles Gounod is replete with tuneful hits and a notable lack of dramatic intensity until the gripping finale.

The creative team assembled by Maestro José Luis Moscovich employed a bushel of fresh approaches to force the audience out of simply sitting back and enjoying the glorious singing. The tale lifts a romantic segment from the long and venerated Faust saga. Don't bother searching for the deep, philosophical insights which Goethe's version presented at length.

Simply summed up: Dr. Faust (in WBO's version) is a biotech geneticist in 2057 desperate to find a DNA implant so that he can enjoy his youth again. Mephistopheles, the devil, is ready to give him what he wants in exchange for his soul. After seeing a video clip of the lovely Marguerite, the doctor is quick to ditch his lab coat and his white wig and go out on the town.

The creative use of cutting-edge graphics, video and animation effects coordinated by set designer Peter Crompton and projection designer Frederic O. Boulay made for smashing scenic changes and time-shifting. Conceptualized by director Ragnar Conde, this production presents a dystopian view of the tragedy. We see a Gothic cathedral disintegrate before our eyes. In a Walpurgis Night witches' sabbath, we are in a gaudy Las Vegas casino which collapses. Finally, we see the insane Marguerite, who killed the child she and Faust conceived, grasping her way to heavenly redemption up the inside of a twisting jail-like cylindrical form like a grain elevator.

The rich musical score is well served by an outstanding cast of young singer-actors. Especially notable is Elizabeth Zharoff, with a big coloratura soprano voice, who makes you see why this opera has sometimes been presented as "Marguerite" despite the fact that she's offstage for much of the three hours. Her "Jewel Song" was well done as was her part of the final trio, "Anges Purs, Anges Radieux" (Pure and Radiant Angels), with its three upward tonal shifts. As the devil, bass Kevin Thompson had a commanding stage presence and a powerfully resonant voice. He fully acted the role. The Faust, James Callon, has a light lyric tenor voice that didn't always find it easy to hit the highest notes. In the duets and the famed quartet, it was tricky for him to keep a balance with the other singers. His black wig, a bit like Sitting Bull, didn't help.

Thompson, who appeared successfully as Osmin in the Abduction from the Seraglio, WBO's previous show, is likely on the cusp of a fine operatic career. His rendering of "Le Veau d'Or" (the Calf of Gold) was particularly powerful.

Smaller roles were cast well. Marthe, Marguerite's neighbor and friend who is tempted into a comic seduction by the devil, was well sung by Patrice Houston. Siebel, a teenage lad enamored of Marguerite, is sung effectively as a pants role by soprano Molly Mahoney. Baritone Bernardo Bermudez, as Marguerite's brother Valentin, had a couple of important arias including "Avant de quitter de ces lieux" (Even the bravest heart may swell) but was hampered by some stiff acting.

Despite having some rousing numbers like the familiar "Soldier's Chorus" and the rollicking village fair scene with its well known happy waltz, the chorus seemed a bit unfocused.

Nevertheless, West Bay Opera's "Faust" is an intriguing venture in pairing directorial rethinking with a traditional romantically lyrical and melodic score.

What: "Faust," presented by West Bay Opera

Where: Lucie Sterne Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Saturday, May 30, 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 31, 2 p.m.

Cost: $40-$75

Info: Go to wbopera.org or call 650-424-9999

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