As old as the epic Greek poet Virgil is the observation that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
At the Orpheum Theater on Friday night, Opera Omaha turned this ancient bit of wisdom into an incredible double-entendre. With Steven White conducting the Omaha Symphony, an Opera Omaha production of Charles Gounod’s “Faust” played with the value of intention from a composer’s point of view, a hero’s point of view, a villain’s point of view and a patron’s point of view in an exhilarating production.
This was the world premiere of a new performance edition of one of the most popular and most performed operas of all time. When Gounod composed “Faust” with his two librettists, Jules Barbier and Michael Carré, a determined director, Leon Carvalho, forced some intense changes upon the production.
Above and beyond Gounod’s vision, there was ballet, additional music, omitted sections and all sorts of other alterations a genius like Gounod must have shuddered to endure.
The brilliance at the core of the piece still rendered it some of the most luminary and important Opera repertoire of all time, but later generations studied its evolution and began to wonder, “What if Gounod had his way?”
On Friday night, as closely as French musicologist Paul Prévost and German music publishing house Bärenreiter-Verlag could envision, Gounod’s intended masterpiece premiered for the world with the additional music stripped away, the original spoken dialogue restored and some of the lost music finally brought to life.
Character development was astounding. Even though it was brief, the spoken dialogue allowed a swift and passionate exchange of information that buffered the glorious evocative arias and chorales.
The Opera Omaha Chorus, prepared by chorus master Sean Kelly, was remarkable. The singers managed to be a village, the voice of hell itself and the choirs of heaven with sensitive variety of tone and tension.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz made her Opera Omaha debut with this production. Rather than tell a story of heroes and villains, Blain-Cruz managed to show the audience human beings with rare honesty.
The title character, Faust, was sung by another Omaha debut artist, Sebastian Guèze. His intense yet agile timbre allowed him to present the desperate and dreamy character triumphantly. Faust longed to be young again, and Guèze managed to sing with a chilling balance of longing and vigor.
Samuel Schultz returned to Omaha on Friday night. His sensual baritone voice made the military commander, Wagner, into a force of nature. But Schultz was also a riveting actor. The character who longed only for a virtuous life died in a moment of vengeance. Schultz’s portrayal was stirring.
Siebel was played by Elizabeth Pojanowski, who was also returning to Omaha. Pojanowski represented an update to the story that Gounod may not have anticipated, portraying Siebel as a young woman. Her sensitive comedy and musicality were refreshing.
Mephistopheles, the devil himself, was played by David Pittsinger in yet another Omaha debut. Perhaps the most clever storytelling device in Gounod’s “Faust” is the fact that the satanic character doesn’t have many ideas of his own.
He plays despicably, for his own amusement and glory, with the desires of the people he ensnares. Pittsinger was thrilling. His voice was frightening and beautiful, believably taking the goodwill of the characters to an ugly place as suited the story’s message.
Cecilia Violetta López was also debuting in Omaha as Marguerite. The only character in the story with no desires other than to love and be loved, López sang Marguerite’s seduction, madness and salvation with an otherworldly wisdom and artistry.
Whatever intentions damned and saved the characters of “Faust,” Opera Omaha, with its own designs, abandoned two centuries of productions and restored Gounod’s thirst to inspire.