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Soul Singing

Raymond Stults

28 May 2004

Charles Gounod’s opera “Faust” has had a rough time of it on Moscow stages in recent years. A ponderous, overdecorated and badly sung production appeared at the Bolshoi Theater in 1992, mercifully disappearing after a few performances. Then, three years ago, a Marxist-minded production team from France came to the Stanislavisky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater and transformed Gounod’s masterpiece into a depressing diatribe of social protest.

Last Monday, the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center came up with a new version of “Faust” that could be both watched and heard with pleasure, with much of its singing good enough for any Moscow opera house, a clear, accessible staging, and musical direction of the highest order.

The Center’s “Faust” is billed as a graduation exercise for its first class of vocal students. But this is no student production in the ordinary sense. Young vocalists come to the Center only after considerable training elsewhere. The Center’s purpose is to fine-tune their already acquired vocal, acting and linguistic skills for successful operatic careers.

Several of the singers heard on Monday seem very much pointed toward success. Pictured above in the role of Faust, Valentin Sukhodolets sang with a clear, robust lyric tenor perfectly suited to the role. The revelation of the evening, in the trouser part of Siebel, was Agunda Kulayeva, who displayed a smooth, powerful and almost vibrato-free mezzo-soprano of a sort rarely heard in Russia or anywhere else. Irina Oknina came close to fulfilling the demands of the role of Marguerite; in time, her nicely focused soprano could well become one of major quality.

The Center’s “Faust” is played entirely within the confines of a white-walled room, its sparse decoration reflecting the story’s 16th-century setting. Thanks to a variety of atmospheric video projections, this works surprisingly well, whether the scene is Faust’s study, a town square, a garden, a church or a prison. The modest-sized stage is peopled only by the opera’s principals and a small group of pantomime artists, while the chorus sings out of sight on an elevated platform.

The performance was superbly supported by the razor-sharp musical direction of Vladimir Ponkin, probably the finest conductor of opera at work in Moscow today, and the excellent playing of his own State Symphony Orchestra.