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Mary Dunleavy and Noah Stewart, in  "Faust." (Photos by Jeff Roffman)

Mary Dunleavy and Noah Stewart, in Faust. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)

The Atlanta Opera has a real hit on its hands with Gounod’s Faust, which opened Saturday night. Musically, this could well be the company’s greatest achievement ever. Everything about Faust is big. It has a large cast with numerous demanding roles. It needs a giant chorus that must sing (in French) quite a bit. It has five acts. It begs for elaborate sets and costumes (lots of them). The orchestra’s contributions are significant. And on this night, the company scored big in every category.

One irony of this is that it’s difficult to know who to credit. Like the rest of this season, Faust was largely assembled and cast after the departure of Dennis Hanthorn as general and artistic director, but before the arrival of Tomer Zvulun in the same role. During this period, the company was essentially run by a management committee, but the leader for the key musical decisions would surely have been Arthur Fagen, the company’s music director. And, of course, Zvulun was on hand this season to pull it all together.

This was Fagen’s night in another sense. The orchestra, which has steadily improved since his appointment, has never sounded better. Fagen often prefers stately tempi, which can rob the music of energy compared to a more vernacular approach, at least in the Italian repertory. At a slower pace, the orchestra is also much more exposed, which can be a bad thing. But here, the exposure drew attention to the ensemble’s impressive accuracy and to Fagen’s sensuous coloring and balance. And with Faust, the slower pace emphasized the work’s churchlike solemnity and grandeur.

This approach meshed well with a similarly severe approach to the staging. The production was originally created by noted director Francesca Zambello for the Houston Grand Opera, and it’s hard to imagine a more old-fashioned approach to Faust. The opera is a bit of a time warp: Satan appears in the flesh and out-of-wedlock pregnancy is cause for banishment. Of course, sin and punishment are opera staples, but Faust is unusually heavy-handed and Victorian.

Modern directors have a tendency to lighten things up a bit. That was not the case here. Except for the substantial cuts, without which we’d have been in the theater for four hours or more, 19th-century audiences would have recognized this Faust, especially the old-fashioned painted sets, designed by Earl Staley. Costumes seemed authentic enough, and the lighting, by Marie Barrett, took on an unusual importance in this evening of contrasts. Director Luisa Muller took advantage of her youthful, athletic cast, but did so in a naturalistic way.

Noah Stewart (Faust) in Marguerite's garden.

Noah Stewart as Faust..

So important is the leading soprano role that the Germans referred to the opera as “Marguerite” until relatively recently. Mary Dunleavy has the rare combination of qualities that make for an ideal Marguerite. She has a youthful and pure sound; ample volume and staying power; nice range, with a fine, unforced top; and flexible coloratura technique for the acrobatic moments, such as her “Jewel Song” aria. Dunleavy can be seen in the movie Lincoln singing this very role.  At this stage, her voice sometimes brings to mind that of Joan Sutherland who, not coincidentally, sang the role in what is probably the finest recording of Faust ever made (in 1966, with Franco Corelli and Nicolai Ghiaurov under Richard Bonynge, available as an MP3 from Amazon). There’s even some of Sutherland’s trademark “weeping” sound in Dunleavy’s singing.  It is worth the price of the ticket just to hear this voice in this role.

Noah Stewart is probably the most talked-about young American tenor these days, so his casting in the title role was especially intriguing. With a ringing, unforced top and ample power, his dark-hued voice is ideal for the role of Faust. At his previous encounter with a Zambello production, as Radames in her 2012 Aida at the Glimmerglass Festival, Stewart was water-boarded (Zambello had updated things a tad from ancient Egypt). This time he was able to avoid torture, but Muller, the stage director, made effective use of his physical acting ability.

A big complaint from us old-timers is that “everybody sounds the same today.” And, sadly, it’s mostly true. Not so, however, for Russian basses, who sometimes sound as though they come from a different planet. Alexander Vinogradov, who sang the role of Méphistophélès, is the real deal. He has a big, somewhat tremulous sound with a dark resonance and a nice, natural top. In the first act, he seemed unfocused, a problem that seems to come with the Russian technique, but as he warmed up the problem became less noticeable. As suits his character, his performance was one of the most athletic we’ve seen here.

Baritone Edward Parks made a big impression in the role of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother. His deathbed curse was bloodcurdling. Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons was most impressive in the trouser role of Siébel, with the kind of light, fleet voice perfect for this role. Cory Neal Schantz was a fine Wagner.

The only veteran singer in the cast was Robynne Redmon, who turned in a solid performance as Marthe, Marguerite’s neighbor.

In this opera, the chorus gets quite a workout. Atlanta Opera’s chorus, led by Walter Huff, has always been one of the company’s great strengths in this city of powerhouse choruses and, despite a few fuzzy moments early on, they did not disappoint. Like the cast, they also got a good physical workout over the course of the evening.

“Faust” will be repeated March 11 at 7:30 p.m., March 14 at 8 p.m., and March 16 at 3 p.m. at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

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