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HGO's Faust: A Descent Into Hell With Wonderful Voices and Music

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French composer Charles Gounod struggled to get into the inner circle at Paris Opera, but his first attempts didn't set any hearts afire, although the young man showed promise, as critics said, and was heralded by none other than superstar soprano Pauline Viardot, who promised Gounod she would star in his first opera after being smitten by his songs.

Sapho (1851), a romantic treatment of the ancient Greek poet, was declamatory like Gluck, but not enough grand-opera Meyerbeer, then all the rage. Though praised by influential critic Hector Berlioz, who also fought for entree into Paris Opera's echelon, the work wasn't much of a success; neither were The Bloody Nun (1854), a medieval ghost story that caused a scandal and the removal of the Opera's director for putting on “such filth"; or The Doctor In Spite of Himself (1858), a buffa adaptation of Molière's satire.

But then he hit pay dirt when he penned Faust (1859), with libretto by theater pros Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Well, his publisher did anyway, since Gounod, no great business wiz, signed away his music rights, those in France anyway. When the opera caught on it became an inferno, and the sheet music profits made publisher Choudens a very wealthy man. He didn't like the opera much, and whenever his children misbehaved, he threatened to send them to see it.

But for Gounod, Faust was heaven-sent. Overnight he became a celebrity, the opera house doors flung wide open. However, his work after Faust was no better received than his work pre-Faust. Only Romeo and Juliet (1867) has shown any life since, but his religious music, especially his “Ave Maria” based on Bach, continues to inspire. But if you're going to make your reputation on one work, Faust is the perfect one on which to do it.

Loosely based on Goethe's archetypal Romantic drama, the opera has been Gallicized, given the ooh-la-la treatment that turns Satan into a wily boulevardier, like Maurice Chevalier only in pantaloons with feather in his cap. It's not exactly light and frothy, especially when Marguerite goes mad and kills her baby when she deserted by philandering Faust, but up till then there's plenty of French wit and irony, and oh, those songs.

Gounod could write a melody, no doubt about that, and all three of the major characters and the chorus get showstopping arias, to say nothing of that famous final “Trio,” when Marguerite is saved, Faust damned and Mephistopheles triumphant. She marches up into heaven like Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin, while the dastardly duo descend into hell. What an ending!

Director Francesca Zambello can't seem to manage the excesses of Faust. Is she paying homage or mocking the stage conventions of Second Empire Paris with that pastel, overblown First Act, which could have arrived out of a warehouse from 1850? Things get better as the opera proceeds, although why is there a spinning wheel outside her house and a fountain of holy water awkwardly placed to stop stage traffic? Unlike the candy-colored other acts, Act III, inside the dank prison, is impressionistic and out of another warehouse entirely. Marguerite climbs up her stairway to heaven with more smoke than in Dolores del Rio's sacrificial walk into her volcano in Bird of Paradise.

So look away, look away, when you can. At least the voices are fresh and clean. Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni makes an ideal devil, lithe and lean in tights, booming his maleficent insinuations and entreaties. Soprano Ana Maria Martinez radiates as innocent Marguerite, whether beguiled by that casket of gems in her famous coloratura “Jewel Song,” or going soulfully mad. Tenor Michael Fabiano turns the lumpy role of Faust into a part of distinction, and his ardently sung “Salut demeure” would turn anyone's head. Mezzo Megan Samarin, as pining lover Siebel, gets a bit swamped under the music's French swirls, and this pants role doesn't quite suit her yet. But the surprise was baritone Joshua Hopkins, a last-minute replacement for ailing Sol Jin, as Marguerite's stalwart brother Valentin. He, too, is blessed with a body for tights, but his voice, mon dieu, has mellowed into a real instrument of purity, clarity and quality. Looking like Prince Valiant doesn't hurt, and in all aspects, he stole the show from the veterans.

An old war horse, Faust has never been long from the boards. I miss Act V's “Walpurgis Night” ballet, in which Faust is tempted by history's rarest beauties, but under maestro Antonio Fogliani's lackluster and sticky tempi, perhaps another 20 minutes of even Gounod's confectionery would have been just too much. Anyway, who else but Balanchine could possibly stage it?

It's still a grand opera, though, old chestnut that it is, made grander by this exemplary cast and thrilling chorus. Just don't look, or you too might be dragged down into Zambello's inferno.

Faust. October 30m; November 5, 8, 11. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $15 to $290.

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