Go to Hell

We know better than to expect slick, glittery productions from community theaters like Opera in the Heights. Still, OH's distinguished vocal treatment of Charles Gounod's world-famous opera Faust is handled with the finesse and aplomb that this old operatic chestnut deserves.

A very French abridgment of Goethe's sublime epic, Gounod's masterwork has remained a mainstay of international houses (it was the inaugural presentation for the debut of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1883), thanks in large part to Gounod's effortless and breezy melodies that stay with you long after the standard opera love story fades. If you ever took piano lessons, you'll never forget Faust's lilting "Waltz" or its "Soldiers' Chorus," and every soprano worth her trills has Marguerite's "Jewel Song" in her recital repertory. Gounod's melodies have become Muzak. It has been said that, on average, Faust plays somewhere in the world every nine days.

Although the opera had a respectable run at its premiere in 1859 at Paris's Opera Lyrique, it didn't hit the musical stratosphere until it played there a year later in a very different form. The spoken dialogue scenes were eliminated, and a great big ballet was inserted at the beginning of Act V to entice Faust away from his infatuation with the village maid Marguerite by showing him temptresses from the past. Having first been an operetta, Faust, you could say, became a grand opera. The Paris Opera version has imprinted Gounod's footprints firmly into history's sidewalk; and it's this, with ballet excised and orchestra reduced, that Opera in the Heights presents.

Now, you don't go to OH expecting HGO. This community-based group doesn't have anywhere near the resources of its much-bigger cousin downtown, and there's a musty smell of my-dad-has-a-barn-let's-put-on-a-show to the enterprise. The beards are patently crepe; the lighting's pretty cheesy; the direction's stiff and unimaginative; and the muslin and balsa wood-unit set looks flimsy. Also, the space could use some well-placed doorknobs so the singers don't have to hesitate upon exiting the stage. There's more community theater about the show than need be.

The theater space itself has been shoehorned into the former sanctuary of the Heights Christian Church (aptly ironic for the demonic tale Faust), while the orchestra is wedged into the side auditorium aisle. The stage is the size of a cookie tin, necessitating entrances and exits from the apron. It's all up close and personal in this venue.

But this in-your-face proximity works for the audience when the singing is so accomplished. When the chorus booms forth its "Easter Chorale" or the jaunty Act IV "Soldiers' Chorus," it shakes the old church rafters and pleasingly rattles our teeth. In a program note, William Weibel, OH artistic director, acknowledges subscribers' former complaints about the chorus and seeks redress. Well, don't worry, maestro, your problems have been solved. Whatever you're doing with Faust, keep doing it. The chorus sounds jubilant, with clean diction and smooth blending. The whole cast, by the way, has the best enunciation I've heard at the opera in a long while. You'd think they were all French -- and that's meant as praise.

Gounod and his librettists Michel Carre and Jules Barbier, the team responsible for Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, Thomas's Hamlet and Meyerbeer's Dinorah, took great liberties with Goethe's poem and basically reduced it to a light comedy with minor satanic overtones. Their Mephistopheles is a satirical pimp without much evil in him or great powers of darkness. He can turn the wizened Faust into a hunk and traipse through a cathedral without batting a horn, but he's scared to death of a sword's hilt held like a cross. He can't even condemn crazy Marguerite to hell, and she's a good Catholic girl who's borne a child out of wedlock and then killed it. He's just a witty, naughty roué; think Maurice Chevalier in tights and peaked hat with feather.

At a recent production, bass Leon Turner sang a robust Satan, full of vocal wickedness in his satiric "Serenade" to Marguerite and his lively "Golden Calf" roundelay, but a touch more oily sauciness and feline grace would be welcome to completely capture this character's devilish charm.

Kelly Smith was radiant and dewy as Marguerite, and her agile soprano soared through the "Jewel Song" as though she's been singing it all her young life. You could actually see and hear her character change when she opened Mephistopheles's gift box and donned the precious gems she rhapsodizes over. She triumphed in the finale's stirring trio "Anges Purs," sending her voice heavenward.

Tenor John Tiranno's Faust, with an ardently sung "Salut! Demeure," came alive in the love duet, abetted by Smith's focused ardor. He's a bit stiff, but perhaps Hal Spenser's routine direction overall is responsible for some of the wood.

In the role of Valentin, Marguerite's protective brother, Christopher Holmes with his powerful baritone brought needed soul and passion to this one-dimensional character.

The real surprise of the evening, though, was the radiant mezzo Kristina Driskill in the thankless part of Siebel, suitor and rival to Faust for the affection of Marguerite. Gounod rearranged, restored and cut this "trousers" role so much it's a miracle anything survived. With her utter professionalism, plummy dark voice and easy stage presence, Driskill outshines everyone else.

Though slightly bumpy, OH's road to Faust is paved with good intentions. It makes going to hell enjoyable and easy on the ears.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover