Baltimore Concert Opera opens season with satisfying account of Gounod's 'Faust'

As longtime readers of my drivel know, I'm quite fond of opera in concert form. Sure, if given a choice, I'd go for the fully staged version, but there's something to be said about getting down to just the musical gritty-nitty, focusing all of the attention on the aural side of an opera. It's a great way to appreciate all over again what the composer was up to, and, of course, a great way to zero in on what the vocalists are doing.

Baltimore Concert Opera, the determined ensemble founded last season by local singers as an outlet during what they thought would be just a temporary shut-down of Baltimore Opera Company, has emerged as a viable addition to the cultural scene. The young company doesn't have the financial resources to do concert versions in the best sense, with full orchestra. But, even with only keyboard accompaniment, it can produce a serious, satisfying substitute, as evidenced by Friday night's season-opening performance of Gounod's "Faust" in the intimate ballroom at the Engineers Club (Garrett-Jacobs Mansion).

If you haven't yet given Baltimore Concert Opera a try, there's another performance Sunday afternoon. I think you'll find yourself very nicely rewarded. For one thing, the soloists are, by and large, fully up to the challenge of this hefty 19th century classic. For another, the chorus is excellent. And James Harp works wonders at the keyboard.

Throughout Friday's performance, sensitively conducted by Julien Benichou, the strengths in Gounod's score -- trimmed for this occasion, but not severely -- registered strongly. (So did the weakness; the composer did have his share of uninspired ideas.) Above all, this was a dynamic account of the opera, not some stand-and-deliver routine; the singers sounded thoroughly involved in the piece from the get-go.

In the title role, Steven Sanders (left) produced a rather thin, but well-produced tone and, except in the uppermost reaches, met the musical demands firmly and always stylishly. He hit an expressive peak in the love duet with soprano Julia Turner Cooke as Marguerite; the two voices sculpted their lines in that scene with admirable poetic nuance. Cooke proved quite telling in the rest of the opera as well. Although her tone tended to get a little edgy when pushed, her overall vocal polish and eloquent phrasing left a strong mark.

David Cushing had fun with the role of Mephistopheles. A somewhat dry timbre proved limiting at times, but he put plenty of bite and fire into his delivery (the wicked laughs in the Serenade were produced with particular flourish).

The real find of the performance was

Jonathan Carle (right) as Valentin. The baritone offered quite a plush tone and a rich variety of expressive detail, digging deep into the music, especially in his final scene. This was sit-up-and-take-notice singing. I'd like to hear him again soon.

Rounding out the cast were Madelyn Wanner as Siebel, Jason Widney as Wagner and Jenni Bank as Marthe (she managed to generate quite a lot of vocal charm in her brief appearance). The chorus did a star turn of its own, doing consistently sturdy, vibrant work. At the keyboard, Harp demonstrated his usual technical panache and supported the singers beautifully. There are only so many tremolos any pianist can produce before they start sounding a little tacky, but Harp had a way of making it possible not to miss an orchestra too much -- no easy feat.

All in all, a classy account of "Faust" and a strong start to Baltimore Concert Opera's first full season.

Hearing all of Gounod's "Faust" played on the piano reminded me of the great Liszt transcription of the opera's famous Waltz. So, just to keep the Faustian/pianistic theme going, here's a terrific performance of that Gounod/Liszt item, performed (and occasionally embellished) by the incomparable Earl Wild:



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