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Splendid cast carries opera's ‘Faust'

The radio audience that heard the opening night of Opera Carolina's “Faust” on WDAV-FM missed out on seeing the stage, of course, but I'm betting there was a compensation: Between scenes, when we in the Belk Theater were looking only at a black curtain and listening only to the clunks and thuds of sets being changed, the audience at home Saturday night presumably had the voice of the radio host to keep them company.

How lucky they were.

Opera Carolina treated Charles Gounod's drama – the story of the man who sells his soul to regain youth – to a compelling, full-throated cast. The Charlotte Symphony was unusually sonorous. Conductor James Meena lent momentum to the feast of melody that makes up Gounod's score.

But when the third and last act came along, and its three brief scenes were separated by set changes that seemed nearly as long as the scenes were, the momentum crumbled. Even though the principals kept up their end of things in the big finish – pouring out music's climactic surge in urgent, untiring voices – this was no way to cap off a night.

Actually, the principals did more than keep up their end all evening. Chester Patton's Mephistopheles – Gounod's incarnation of the devil, who drives the whole story – was a towering figure, vocally and physically. The sheer sound of his voice summoned the blackness of the underworld.

Maureen O'Flynn had an equal and opposite power in the innocence she embodied as Marguerite, the young woman whom Mephistopheles snares for Faust. Even before Marguerite gave in to Faust's advances, the way she caressed the music showed that she was already succumbing to him in her heart. As Marguerite suffered the consequences of being seduced, O'Flynn's voice palpitated with emotion.

James Valenti, who played another seducer in Opera Carolina's “Rigoletto” in 2007, did it more convincingly this time. He brought the title role not only the good looks and ardent singing he displayed last time, but he added a livelier stage presence and more subtlety in his voice. Valenti could still learn from Patton and O'Flynn about making his face expressive. But he nevertheless was a Faust who looked and sounded like he really received the youthfulness that the bargain with the devil is all about.

You won't encounter that often.

As Valentin, Marguerite's brother, Corey McKern delivered the noble aria that's the centerpiece of his role in ringing tones. Diane McEwen-Martin was fittingly coltish as Marguerite's young admirer Siebel.

The strength of Bernard Uzan's stage direction lay in his guiding all those characterizations – especially Mephistopheles' air of jubilant conniving and Marguerite's descent from innocence to madness.

Uzan's other touches, such as putting Faust and Mephistopheles in identical costumes – a kinship motif – didn't contribute much. His staging was tame when it should have been flamboyant: the Church Scene, where demons taunt Marguerite, and the Walpurgis Night scene, where seductresses tempt Faust. The lack was all the more telling because the sets, designed by Uzan and Charles Girard, grew more spare as the story unfolded.

And yet they still required those drawn-out changes in Act 3. Too bad.