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Opera Velveeta

Comes a time when even the youngest at heart among the critical confraternity simply runs out of new ways of expressing the awfulness of Gounod‘s Faust -- the drabness of its musical invention, its lurid insult to Goethe’s great poetry it purports to honor, its sheer arrogance in holding an audience captive for hour upon hour. My colleague and onetime protege Tim Mangan, now calling the shots at the Orange County Register, got it exactly right. ”If Gounod‘s opera were food,“ he wrote, ”we’d spray it from a can onto crackers.“

You have to admit, however, that a Faust snazzily produced, with lots of scenery and lung power, can be one Devil of a show, and on this premise you might like the current Los Angeles Opera revival, a production co-owned by the Chicago Lyric Opera and first seen here in 1994 -- if, of course, that‘s the sort of thing you like. Christopher Harlan has staged a respectful revival of Frank Corsaro’s original production; it runs (if that‘s the word) through February 5. Never a man to shy away from the chance to seduce an audience with an overdose of stage biz, Corsaro loads his larger-than-life Faust with light-and-shadow tricks, prop tricks, people-props and people-prop tricks, all deployed around Franco Colavecchia’s larger-than-life scenery.

Then there‘s the Mephistopheles of Samuel Ramey, who currently and deservedly owns just about every diabolical role in the repertory -- most of them far more interesting musically than Gounod’s tawdry tunesmithing. Marcello Giordani is the Faust, Leontina Vaduva the Marguerite, both (along with Ramey) in their L.A. Opera debuts, both capably loud, neither above an occasional wandering off the pitch, at least on opening night. The lively, appealing Siebel was Megan Dey-Toth, a member of the L.A. Opera‘s Resident Artist program; even her good work, however, couldn’t justify the restoration of her second aria, a pallid affair that any sensible producer would have cut and buried. At least we were spared the dreadful ”Walpurgis“ ballet; praise be for small favors. Philippe Auguin conducted, in his American debut, a nicely shaded, propulsive performance in, alas, a hopeless cause.

You don‘t, of course, need an immersion in Faust to point up the sublimity of The Marriage of Figaro. Still, experiencing both works on successive nights -- I saw the second Figaro of four -- demonstrated the vastness of the realm of opera. (And the visiting Beijing Kunju Opera Theater, which I had seen and thrilled to the previous weekend, extended that vastness beyond measure.)

Figaro was the latest in a growing list of great good deeds that have marked the development of Orange County’s Opera Pacific since the accession of John DeMain as artistic director and principal conductor two years ago. On a modest set dwarfed by the Segerstrom Hall stage, and with an orchestra similarly dwarfed in the pit, DeMain shaped a performance beautifully integrated, an evening of idealized chamber music without a single loose end or false note. Richard Bernstein, the Figaro, grows in strength and assurance every time he comes around. (He‘s next season’s Figaro, as well, with the L.A. Opera.) John Hancock was a forceful if somewhat young-looking Count. Christine Brandes was a twinkly delight as Susanna; Marie Plette‘s Countess was just a smidge below full color; the Cherubino of Rinat Shaham, hilariously agile and gorgeously responsive to the throbbing, adolescent passions of the role, won everybody’s heart.

I hope Orange County realizes what‘s happening in its midst: the emergence of an opera company for which no geographical apologies are necessary; the resident orchestra, the Pacific Symphony, also moving up; and a concert management -- the O.C. Philharmonic Society -- with the bravery and enterprise to bring in Chinese opera, contemporary chamber music, a whole range of new and old. From what I pick up in conversations around me, at Segerstrom and at the smaller Irvine Barclay Theater, where some of the high-adventure programming takes place, the old image of Orange County as a place for conservative dodos sequined and suited seems to be crumbling. There’s still work to be done -- to discourage the white-haired matron who crumpled cellophane in Row L during the exquisite, ethereal ending of Susanna‘s ”Deh, vieni,“ and the depressingly large number who, during the heartrending forgiveness music at the opera’s end, found laff-provocation in the supertitles.

Oh well, you gotta start somewhere.

At the Irvine Barclay, the Beijing troupe performed a ”hits of the show“ program of scenes from a repertory that extends back four and more centuries: not the same as the enthralling, 18-hour Peony Pavilion that seems to have seeped out of its native turf despite official reluctance, but a wonderful foretaste. The ”orchestra“ of seven players banged and tootled on the side; the sets were simple and, when the drama demanded, transformable as if by magic. The acrobatics were, as expected, breathtaking, from the hurtling, tumbling opening moment through an evening far too short for its stock of the wondrous. The garish splendors captured in films like Farewell My Concubine were missing; the female roles were sung by women, not the tradition-ordained male falsettos and boys. Rather than rekindling memories of that splendid film, this troupe brought back something even more glorious, the visit here of Ariane Mnouchkine‘s Theatre du Soleil during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, and its performances of Shakespeare in Asian theatrical styles.

Will we ever see their like? Miracles can happen; after all, the Los Angeles Opera has announced, to open its next season, that most-often-announced, most-often-canceled of all great operas, Verdi’s Aida. See what a little faith can do?