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Atlanta Opera to present Gounod’s “Faust” - French grand opera full of amazing tunes

Posted 12:00 am, Thursday March 6, 2014


“Faust,” Atlanta Opera’s most adventurous work in several years, arrives at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre March 8 as part of a well-travelled production originally created by the renowned director Francesca Zambello.

The leading role of Marguerite will be sung by Mary Dunleavy, who enjoyed considerable success here last season as Violetta in “La Traviata” and is a favorite of the company’s new director, though the opera was cast before his arrival.

“For me, she is one of the most exciting American sopranos of our time,” said Tomer Zvulun.

Dunleavy gained fame performing as the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute,” a stratospheric role managed only by a handful of singers, then she left it to focus on other major roles. She has sung with every major opera company in America and many in Europe.

The title role of the man who makes a deal with the devil will be sung by American tenor Noah Stewart, making his debut with the company. Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov, who has sung extensively in Europe, will sing the role of Mephistopheles and will also be making his Atlanta Opera debut. Acclaimed mezzo Robynne Redmon will return to sing the role of Marthe. Music Director Arthur Fagen will conduct.

“Faust” was America’s most popular opera for decades, and for years it always opened the season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but it now ranks 35th on the Operabase ranking, for those who worry about such things.

As such, it marks a modest but welcome expansion for Atlanta Opera, which had pledged in 2012 to limit itself to the “top 30” operas.

Written in 1859, “Faust” represents the highest form of French grand opera, which required five acts, elaborate sets and costumes, a large chorus, and ballet scenes. In fact, the Paris Opera initially rejected it because it lacked sufficient ballet. Wealthy patrons there often had mistresses who were dancers, and the company was expected to show them off to maximum advantage. Composer Charles Gounod caved, added the “Witch’s Sabbath” ballet to the fifth act, and “Faust” was on its way.

“Faust” is full of astonishing music, so why has it dropped in the charts? Tastes are always changing, if not quite as fast as with the pop charts. The musical style is quite different from that of the Italian works currently in vogue. And the length can be a problem; the opera can easily run past four hours. That is a challenge for modern attention spans and for social planners, especially in places like Atlanta where, for many, dressing up and having parties before or after the opera is as important as the singing. So, companies often make cuts, but these often make the work a mess of disconnected scenes.

Zvulun is aware of this, and though the performances here will be carefully pruned to about three hours, great effort has been made to preserve the opera’s “very dramatic theatricality.” He feels the “long ballet scenes feel out of place,” so they’ve been eliminated.

The production is a “classic production in the great style of grand opera,” Zvulun said. The stage director will be Louisa Muller, a fast-rising young director making her Atlanta debut.

“Faust” will always be an important work because it’s filled with great, moving music. But Zvulun emphasized the importance of the text.

“It’s a story about nostalgia, and all of us are nostalgic for our youth. ‘Faust’ is about a man who is getting older and who would give his soul to be young again. There’s also the purity of Marguerite, and what it does to her when she gets pregnant, as well as going to war and what that does to us. The greatest writers, from Goethe to Thomas Mann, have been fascinated with this story.”

Atlanta Opera’s “Faust” will be performed March 8, 11, 14, and 16 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Tickets range from $26 to $133. For information call 1-800-35-Opera, or go to the company’s website at

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