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Houston Grand Opera

In Review HGO Faust hdl 117
Fabiano and Martínez in the last act of HGO’s Faust
© Lynn Lane

ON OCTOBER 28, Houston Grand Opera reveled in the spectacle of Gounod’s Faust, in a revival of its longstanding Francesca Zambello production, directed this time around by Garnett Bruce. The result was a near-great performance enlivened by an array of visual extravagances—imposing stage sets by artist Earl Staley, such as Marguerite’s thickly verdant and luxuriously flowering garden or the grimly cavernous cathedral over whose altar looms a menacing life-size crucifix; well-placed lighting effects by Ken Billington to signal Méphistophélès’s supernatural interventions, realized for this revival by Michael James Clark; copious dry ice to capture the nebulous, mysterious moment of Marguerite’s ascent into heaven; and a teeming, chaotic fairground scene that combined dancing, acrobatics, juggling, a mountebank morality play and a festively milling crowd.

In their 1859 retelling of the Faust legend, via Goethe, Charles Gounod and his librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, placed Marguerite at the heart of the story; as that beleaguered heroine, HGO favorite Ana María Martínez, an outstanding soprano and powerful stage presence, brought home the opera’s moral lesson and emotional force. Martínez’s voice alone—with its chocolate-rich vibrancy in the low and middle range and its thrilling brilliance at the top—is worth the price of admission, but she also has the expressive range as a singing actress to portray Marguerite’s complex transformation from youthful innocent in the throes of first love to outcast sinner consumed by tragedy and madness, who then achieves the miracle of redemption. 

In his role debut as Méphistophélès, Luca Pisaroni bore the weight of the dark, supernatural tone of the opera: by turns suave, swaggering, wittily comic and threatening, Pisaroni’s solid bass-baritone had a reserve of dominating power that offered a glimpse of his character’s superhuman abilities. The title role is a less complex character than Marguerite and Méphistophélès, but in tenor Michael Fabiano’s performance—an HGO debut—Faust’s emotional life was richly realized, with an expressive range from tender poignancy to soaring passion and then searing grief.  

Stepping in on short notice, Joshua Hopkins played the dignified if too-judgmental Valentin. Hopkins began Act I with some pitch-obscuring unsteadiness to his singing, but he then settled in, bringing the wondrously sustaining resonance of his baritone to the young soldier’s Act III death scene. HGO Studio artist Megan Mikailovna Samarin brought her warm mezzo-soprano to the trouser role of Siébel; Margaret Lattimore delivered a satisfyingly no-nonsense, bustling, comically amorous Marthe Schwerlein. The assortment of musical strengths in this performance was completed by the HGO chorus, prepared by Richard Bado to vary dramatically between hushed reverence and transcendent power, and the HGO orchestra, which often sounded bigger, richer and more sweeping than its numbers under the expressive direction of Antonino Fogliani.

In spite of the musical and visual grandeur of this HGO Faust, the production needed stronger choreography to realize the potential of the opera’s design, especially given all of the ballet music that Gounod included. There was dancing, but it amounted to casual shuffling. Likewise, the build-up to the return of Valentin and his soldiers, substantial and detailed in Gounod’s score, came off as haphazard and anticlimactic. These details stand out because this production—with its luxurious costumes and set design and numerous, multitalented supernumeraries—otherwise did so much to capture the spirit of Faust.  —Gregory Barnett

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