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The devil is in the details: Houston Grand Opera's terrifying and charming Faust is a don't miss hit

Devil in the details: HGO's terrifying Faust is a don't miss hit

HGO Faust, Joshua Hopkins, Ana Maria Martinez
Joshua Hopkins and Ana Maria Martinez in the Houston Grand Opera production of Faust. Photo by Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Faust, HGO Chorus; HGO Supernumeraries
A colorful scene from the Houston Grand Opera production of Faust. Photo by Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Faust, Meghan Mikailovna Samarin
Megan Mikailovna Samarin in the Houston Grand production of Faust. Photo by Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Faust, Michael Fabiano
Michael Fabiano in the Houston Grand Opera production of Faust. Photo by Lynn Lane
HGO Faust, Joshua Hopkins, Ana Maria Martinez
Houston Grand Opera Faust, HGO Chorus; HGO Supernumeraries
Houston Grand Opera Faust, Meghan Mikailovna Samarin
Houston Grand Opera Faust, Michael Fabiano

"The devil inside, the devil inside," chanted Australians INXS in one of the band's greatest hits. "Every single one of us, the devil inside." Now, what are the chances that would be the first song playing on the car radio as I was leaving Houston Grand Opera's opening-night performance of Gounod's Faust? And on Halloween weekend? It was a wonderful coincidence, and if you do not believe me, I have a witness. 

What I find more intriguing, however, is the song's assertion that all of us are highly susceptible to our own demonic forces. It must be one reason why so many opera fans relate quickly to this rousing, and ultimately tragic, work. Viewers can vacillate between identifying with Faust or his doomed lover, Marguerite, even though it's evident early on that both will come to a bad end. 

I had not seen a decent staging in decades. HGO's production is charming at times, terrifyingly cinematic at others, and quite sophisticated. Antonino Fogliani, a conductor of supreme elegance, has done a miraculous job with the orchestra players, who seem in complete agreement with his decisions. Additionally, great use is made of the chorus, ancillary acrobats, and groups of children to give the performance the weight of a troubled cosmology. Visually, it is largely a traditional yet highly vibrant interpretation from set and costume designer Earl Staley. The palette has a kind of post-card, if not Technicolor, feel to it. 

While I had been looking forward to Korean baritone Sol Jin's HGO debut as Valentin, he canceled due to illness. The good news is that the talented Joshua Hopkins filled in, giving an impassioned and commanding performance in this lesser, yet crucial role. He has a confident and exacting voice, never cowering under the force of the orchestra, and he is a commanding actor.

One could not ask for a better Mephistopheles in Italian singer Luca Pisaroni. We've only seen him at HGO once before, as Count Almaviva in the company's 2011 The Marriage of FigaroHe plays the devil with that perfect blend of terror, humor, and sexual charisma. An occasional roll of the eyes and flourish of his sumptuous cape showed his frustration with mortals, and now and then he suddenly sinks from the stage as if here were going to hell for a much-needed cigarette break.

As an artist, he clearly understands Gounod's style, which is mostly grand opera, but at times showing the ethereal tendencies that will be fully realized by Debussy in Pelleas et Melisande. I found Pisaroni entirely captivating, the kind of devil you cannot help but blindly follow downwards. Yes, master.  

American tenor Michael Fabiano is a complex Faust, here making his HGO debut. He seems to be several singers packed into one. In the opening scene he conveys the despondent old philosopher with poignancy, becoming strangely triumphant as he contemplates his own death.

Later transformed by the devil into a young man at the peak of his sexual powers, his voice warms as he encounters the lovely Marguerite. In their duet amidst the flower-laden gardens outside her cottage, he has to hold a very high note for a very long time. It's one of Gounod's rare show-off moments, and Fabiano made it something special, as if he had just discovered it. He stands out in the ensemble passages as well. 

The chorus is a prominent entity in this opera and here each member sings with a stunning range of dynamics. Together they also march, frolic, and quarrel, carrying the opera towards its harrowing conclusion within a variety of lively scenes. The exquisite quietness of their choral benediction in the falling snow was a high-point of the evening. Faust comprises mostly tenors and baritones throughout its scenes, set against the chorus and the extremely demanding role of Marguerite.

Ana Maria Martinez took a bit of time to warm up on opening night, later giving us a confident and shimmering "Jewel Song" in the second act. It's a role she clearly loves, though her acting in the third act, where Marguerite is supposed to be deranged, bordered on bad melodrama. I fault the direction, which demanded that she stagger around in a circle for too long a period, or cover her ears without doing much of anything else. The scene is long, it needs more than that.

Megan Mikailovna Samarin did a confident job in the trouser-role of Siebel, though at times the orchestra overpowered her singing. Her third act was superior to the second, suggesting that it was merely a matter of opening-night acoustic calibration. 

The thrilling success of this performance fills me with the hope that we are in store for a wider range of French operas at HGO. How wonderful it would be to hear some Massenet, a big opera by Berlioz, or even a "lost" opera of Meyerbeer, such as Robert le Diable or Le Prophete. I would dream to see Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande or a unique staging of anything by Messiaen here in Houston.

While I was sorry to see that the "Walpurgis" ballet scene had been cut from this Faust, I understand completely the added expense. However, I am of the mind that ballet and opera will once again reunite as they were in the 19th century. It's good for both dancers and singers to share the stage and it's thrilling for the audience. We'll have a glimpse of that with this season's re-staging of Nixon in China in January, featuring choreography by the talented Sean Curran. In the meantime, this Faust is not to be missed. 

The Houston Grand Opera production of Faust continues through November 11.