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Buffalo Opera Unlimited, the grass-roots opera company led by Tim Kennedy, is staging Gounod's "Faust" this weekend at Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall. It is a heartfelt and illuminating production, with fine, strong voices and some real chills.

This opera has a rich history. In the 1936 movie "San Francisco," Jeanette MacDonald is starring in "Faust" when Clark Gable, hearing her, falls in love with her. In "The Phantom of the Opera," Christine stars in "Faust." No accident there - both dramas have to do with the dark side.

You can enjoy "Faust" in several ways. One operagoer Friday at Rockwell Hall opined that "Faust" thrives thanks to its strong story line. It does have a magnificent story, about an elderly professor (Faust) who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for youth and love.

On the other hand, another Friday attendee said that he preferred forgetting about the story and just leaning back and loving the music.

Whichever way you decide to go, the production is a success.

In the pit is a 27-piece orchestra, under Kennedy's direction, including Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra musicians as well as other distinguished well known names. A half-dozen young dancers are charming. The sets, by David Butler, a well-known local name, are spare but atmospheric.

The cast comprises wonderful singers. Jeffrey J. Thompson, as the elderly Faust, hits beautiful, clear high notes and is very affecting.

Laura Noack, as Marguerite, has a kind of Bette Davis thing going on. She becomes beautiful before your eyes. Noack wins your heart with her naivete and sweetness. Her voice, with its lovely legato tones, is a delight.

Ashley Hill Hibbard is captivating in the "trouser role" of Siebel, the youth who vies with Faust for Marguerite's heart.

The young Faust is sung by Salvatore Atti. Atti, who sang at Kleinhans Music Hall two years ago in Marvin Hamlisch's last "Star Search" here, is still green, and it shows. His movements and manner are kind of wooden. And though he has a clear and good voice, it needs more passion and color.

Mephistopheles, too, needs a bit more oomph. Kennedy wanted to make him come across as likable, and maybe he succeeded a little too well: Nicholas Kilkenny, in the role, does not emerge as powerful or diabolical enough.

He also had a devil of a time with his pants not hanging quite right - normally not a big deal, but important in light of the fact that he sings that his clothes are impeccably tailored.

That was one of only a few glitches. In general, this production unfolded smoothly and swiftly, and it was nothing to laugh at. It delivered the chills in the haunting scene in which Faust kills Valentin.

The swordplay was gripping, and Valentin's death was slow, taut and terribly sad. James Wright, as Valentin, is tremendous. He has the voice and the presence.

An early deadline made me leave after the second act. I wish I could have stayed.

"Faust" repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Rockwell Hall.





email: mkunz@buffnews.com