The Francesca Zambello production of Gounod’s “Faust” was created for the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) in 1985. Thirty years later, it has been revived with a stellar cast, whose performance was as theatrically arresting as it was vocally resplendent.
[Below: the Earl Staley sets and costumes for the scene of parish church kermesse; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Michael Fabiano’s Faust
The revival was a vehicle for New Jersey tenor Michael Fabiano’s HGO debut, his second Zambello production on which I have reported in the past 13 months [See also Review: Michael Fabiano’s Star Ascends in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 2015.]
[Below: Michael Fabiano as Faust; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The role of Faust, the most familiar of French lyric tenor roles, proved a felicitous fit with Fabiano’s attractive tenor voice. His aria Salut! demeure chaste et pure displayed the power and vocal expressiveness that one has come to expect from this consummate artist [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Michael Fabiano.]
Costumed in Staley’s “Prince Charming” doublet, Fabiano exemplified an amorous youth, albeit one who has sold his soul with dark consequences for himself and for the woman he desires to possess.
Ana Maria Martinez’ Marguerite
Reunited with Fabiano, with whom she appeared four months ago [Review: A Legendary Performance of “Don Carlo” at the San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2016], Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez made a strong impression as Marguerite.
Even though Martinez is increasingly associated with dramatic roles of heavier vocal weight, she performed the coloratura fireworks of the “Jewel song” (Ah! je ris de me voir) brilliantly, and blended beautifully with Fabiano in their erotic duet in the Garden Scene.
[Below: Ana Maria Martinez as Marguerite; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
A high point of the evening though was the so-called “spinning song” Il ne revient pas which Gounod and his principal librettist, Jules Barbier, had envisioned be sung while operating a spinning wheel.
Without changing the sentiment of the aria’s lyrics about her sense of betrayal at Faust’s abandonment, that aria, in this production, is enlisted to introduce Marguerite’s illegitimate newborn child. The infant’s presence stokes Valentin’s fury at the dishonor his sister has brought the family with disastrous results.
In past decades some German companies have renamed the opera Marguerite, because Gounod’s “Faust” elevated what they regarded as a minor character in Goethe’s Faust Part One to a central place in the opera.
I have argued [See my essay Faust Damned and Marguerite Saved: Changing Faust’s Fate in Paris] that the French “discovery” of the peripheral Marguerite story by the composers Berlioz and Gounod and playwrights LeCarre and Barbier resulted in a theatrically profound story.
This is especially evident in the Zambello production’s Third Act (described in more detail below), which chronicles the psychological deterioration and ultimate salvation of Marguerite. Performed by Martinez, an especially effective singing actress, the result is a memorable operatic experience.
Luca Pisaroni’s Mephistopheles
The performance was the occasion for both Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni’s HGO debut and his role debut as Mephistopheles.
[Below: Luca Pisaroni as Mephistopheles; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Although, over the past nine years, I have reviewed nine Pisaroni performances, his previous roles (in all of which he excelled) have been in operas by Handel, Mozart and Rossini, whose bass-baritone roles require a precise, controlled vocal delivery.
As Pisaroni’s voice matures (he is in his very early 40s), he is adding the great bass-baritone roles of the French repertory (while retaining his ties to baroque, Mozartean and bel canto opera). French roles like Mephistopheles can be sung more freely and more expansively, allowing artists like Pisaroni to exploit the dramatic potential of the bass-baritone voice.
In his first appearance in one of opera’s iconic role, Pisaroni displayed Mephisto’s many facets – his charm, elegance and humor, that masks a sinister purpose. His delivery of the great hits – the spirited Veau d’Or and the Serenade – were flawless and sung with a self-assuredness that one might have believed this was his 100th Mephistopheles rather than his role debut.
Joshua Hopkins’ Valentin
Joshua Hopkins, who dispatched Valentin’s famous aria Avant de quitter ces lieux with distinction, was able, in this staging, to project a more complete portrait of Marguerite’s soldier brother.
In a role that in many productions (performed with traditional cuts) Valentin’s appearances are episodic – big introductory aria, soldiers chorus, then fight with Faust, and curse Marguerite – this production gives weight to the fatal consequences that follow his violent reaction to his sister’s illegitimate pregnancy.
[Below: Valentin (Joshua Hopkins, left) expresses his love for his sister, Marguerite (Ana Maria Martinez, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Another graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, Hopkins is yet another former HGO young artist who has established a major operatic career.
Megan Samarin’s Siebel, Margaret Lattimore’s Dame Marthe and Ben Edquist’s Wagner
Two current HGO Studio artists were impressive in comprimario assignments.
American Mezzo-soprano Megan Mikailova Samarin played the adolescent boy, Siebel. Samarin’s Siebel sang the familiar Flower Song and, additionally, Siebel’s attractive second aria, cut from most 20th century “Faust” productions.
[Below: Megan Samarin as Siebel; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Texas baritone Ben Edquist was engaging in the brief role of Wagner. Edquist’s place in the history of opera was secured by his creating the title role of Carlisle Floyd’s latest opera [see World Premiere: A Triumphant “Prince of Players” for Composer Carlisle Floyd, Baritone Ben Edquist – Houston Grand Opera, March 5, 2016]. He (His fellow HGO studio artist Samarin created two of the Floyd opera’s comprimario roles.)
[Below: Ben Edquist as Wagner; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, as Dame Marthe Schwerlein, made the most of the role’s opportunities for humor, including comic interchanges with Pisaroni’s Mephistopheles.
[Below: Mephistopheles (Luca Pisaroni, left) has caught the eye of Dame Marthe Schwerlein (Margaret Lattimore, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
In what I happily regard as a sly reference to this production’s de-emphasis of the “spinning wheels” that the Gounod team had specified in two of the opera’s scenes, Lattimore’s Schwerlein gave the swift turn of a small spinning wheel onstage that had been totally ignored by Martinez’ Marguerite.
Francesca Zambello’s Production, Garnett Bruce’s Revival, and Earl Staley’s Sets and Costumes
I had been impressed with Zambello’s concepts when I saw it in a not entirely satisfactory revival by Elizabeth Bachman [See A “Faust” Surprise in Houston – January 23, 2007.] In my 2007 review I had regretted several choices of that year’s staging, particularly of the Kermesse fair, but in other scenes as well.
Virtually every production element with which I had found fault disappeared in the 2016 revival. While a couple of my 2007 concerns that remained, in my reconsidered opinion, fit the Garnett Bruce revival perfectly .
The Zambello production follows Gounod’s story line and order of scenes faithfully through the Garden Scene, Marguerite’s confession of lustful passion to the stars, that the eavesdropping Faust exploits.
In a brilliant final act, the Zambello production departs from the typical mid-20th century “Faust” production by restoring several traditionally cut scenes. These include the scene containing the so-called “spinning aria” which Zambello/Bruce transforms into an exposition of Marguerite – aided by Martha Schwerlein – caring for her illegitimate newborn baby. Siebel’s second aria follows, and then his conversation with the war-weary Valentin, who has returned with his soldiers.
What happens next powerfully refocuses the remainder of the opera from a rather loosely organized parade of operatic hits into a theatrical triumph.
Siebel tries to keep Valentin from entering Marguerite’s house. Faust and Mephistopheles arrive (Mephisto’s serenade taking on a much darker significance) and goad Valentin, who seeks an honor killing to avenge his despoiled sister. The ensuing duel is fatal, the dying Valentin cursing his sister.
[Below: Demonic forces surrounding her and thcorpse of her brother Valentin (Joshua Hopkins, above) lying on a church bier, Marguerite (Ana Maria Martinez, below) prays for heaven’s mercy; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Immediately, Valentin’s body is removed from the street where he died to a church bier where Marguerite, with her brother’s body prominently displayed, is tormented by Mephisto and his demonic legions.
Marguerite, driven mad, has killed her infant. She regains her senses in time for the famous final trio, appealing successfully to angelic forces and ascending to heaven; as Faust, with Mephistopheles, descends to Hell.
The conductor was Italian Maestro Antonino Fogliani.
I enthusiastically recommend the opera, production and cast to both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera, and suggest that those able to attend one of the remaining performances, do so.