Houston — In an era of productions updating operas by placing them in an odd place and time, the Houston Grand Opera’s production of Gounod’s Faust backdates it.
You never know what to expect from a production by director Francesca Zambello. For example, she created a production of Puccini’s Turandot that put the trio of three state officials (Ping, Pong, Pang) down on all fours, in leather-bar harnesses and a leash, which Turandot held. For Faust, she reaches back to the production’s past for scenery that was typical at the time of the opera’s debut in 1859.
The sets for this production are painted backdrops and travelers. In fact, the drop for Marguerite’s garden closely resembles the one painted by Édouard Desplechin for the opera’s premiere. The gorgeous MGM-style drops for this Faust were painted by the Houston-based artist Earl Staley.
The first act shows a town in the background and the effect of being surrounded by trees is created with painted legs and a series of leafy borders. Stanley also designed the costumes, which are era-appropriate and, for the chorus, are all slightly different.
The opening of the first act, and most subsequent acts, is played behind an evocative scrim. This allows lighting designer Ken Billington to highlight one small scene behind it after another. This works especially nicely at the beginning by allowing Faust’s office to feel cramped and claustrophobic in its lower corner of the stage. It also allows the Devil-created vision of Marguerite, the ideal woman, to appear to be floating in the air.
As Faust, tenor Michael Fabiano brings a gleaming tenor sound and fine acting abilities. He also displays some lovely soft singing. The role requires the singer to portray a collection of the same person, but at different times in his life. When we first encounter Faust, he is an elderly professor, stooped over his brittle books and disillusioned. He seeks ultimate knowledge, but what he learns in a lifetime of study is the realization that his quest is impossible.
Later, after his deal with the devil, he is a bounding, youthful and handsome man with flowing blond locks. When he deftly woos (and wins) Marguerite, he remembers some of the lessons he learned in his previous life and treats her in a highly gentlemanly manner.
At the end, when everything has tragically turned to ashes, he is still the young man the devil created, but there is pathos to both his voice and body language. Fabiano is completely believable in all the stages of his of his life. He is also in excellent voice.
There is some controversy about the high “C” in Faust’s aria, “Salut! demeure chaste et pure.” Some think it should be quietly floated; while others, like Fabiano, think it should be sung with tutta forza full voice (it is terrific, by the way). Singing in a French opera usually requires a more refined vocal approach than in Italian opera where “Nessun Dorma”-ish high notes are de rigueur.
It was a temporary disappointment to learn, via an insert in the program, that Korean baritone Sol Jin would not be singing the role of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother who went off to war, only to return when everything was a mess.
Instead of an indisposed Jin, we got the opportunity to see, and hear, the young Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, in what will surely become a signature role. Hopkins has a stunning voice and a distinguished stage manner. He even managed to make us believe the much-joked-about stage business. He is stabbed, but still manages to sing 10 minutes of music before expiring.
As Mephistopheles, Luca Pisaroni (and presumably Zambello) is the rather unexpectedly disheveled and slightly disappointing character that is in Goethe’s play. In the role, Pasaroni tries to be elegant but always falls short in the attempt. His wooing of Marthe, Marguerite's neighbor, gives Faust a clear shot at Marguerite. Mephistopheles is too successful and Marthe chases him around the stage.
Pisaroni has a marvelous voice for the role, and vocally as well as dramatically commands the stage. He is a true bass, but has some baritone sound as well. It is a welcome change from the woofy basses that usually sing the role.
Soprano Ana Maria Martinez is the picture of innocent beauty as the young and clueless maiden, Marguerite. She is caught in a whirlwind of events and is completely unaware of it. Vocally, she has a more lyric/spinto sound than the squeaky coloratura soprani that sing this role. She does a fine job with the minimal coloratura work in the “Jewel Song,” but lacks the required trill. But most of us would gladly strike the trill to get a Maguerite with such a beautiful, velvety and rich vocal sound.
In the pants role of Siébel, mezzo Megan Mikailovna Samarin plays the lovesick boy with earnestness. It is always a difficult assignment, in any opera, for a female to play a young boy. Samarin certainly has the proper voice and physical build for such roles. Further, she sings with excellent technique. However, there were times when she lost believability as a callow youth. She is a natural for pants parts and we should see her in many more of them.
Gounod’s opera has quite a lot chorus work and the Houston Opera Chorus is impressive. Further, Zambello hits a home run staging the chorus. First of all, each of them has a separate identity and interactions. They are never “the chorus” standing in a semi-circle the whole time. In this production, there is always something interesting going on in the background, but it never distracts.
It is long evening, even with some cuts, but the Houston Grand Opera omitts the entire “Walpurgis Nacht” that opens the fifth act. It is, of course, a chance to stage a ballet that is a wild orgy. French opera always has a ballet. Also, this the play’s situation when Faust sees a vision of Maguerite: in prison. He demands the devil to tell him what happened.
(She bore his child that resulted from their dalliance, and was banished, cut off from society. Then, in a fit of depression, she killed the child and ended up in jail.)
Conductor Antonio Fogliani elicits some fine playing from the orchestra. Many solo parts are played beautifully and with a major opera company sound and with excellent intonation. His tempi tend to be on the slow side here and there, but Fogliani’s deliberate pacing allows for some highly romantic phrases to be lavished with all the rubato one can get away with and some high notes on the stage that are held just a little too long.
This is terrific production of one of grandest of grand operas. In the past it was performed more frequently, even as it was considered to be corny and long-winded. It is due for a revival and maybe productions like this one will be the launching pad.