Donning a black hat and cape, the baritone Laurent Naouri contorts and cackles his way through "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" as the devilish nemesis of the tortured poet Hoffmann.
Naouri is a near-constant presence in the Metropolitan Opera's three-and-a-half hour production, which runs from bubble-gum animation to cold minimalism as a parade a colorfully-coiffed personages cross the stage.
Naouri's identity morphs with each new tale, even as his character remains essentially the same.
"Mostly, I'm an emanation of the Hoffmann psyche, of a destructive part of him," Naouri told AFP.
"So I just do what I'm created for. I do evil."
Naouri has played the role in Jacques Offenbach's masterpiece for nearly 20 years, including at other major opera houses, but this is his first Hoffmann in New York.
Hoffmann is actually Naouri's second turn at the Met following a 2012 stint in "Madame Butterfly."
Even before the current run, there had been plans for him to return in future New York productions of "Romeo and Juliet" and Massenet’s "Cendrillon" in secondary parts.
But the positive feedback has lifted the odds that more prominent roles will come in the Big Apple. The New York Times praised Naouri's "robust voice and consummate French style" in the part.
"I'm happy because they're speaking of other stuff, so I'm waiting," said Naouri, who turned 50 last year.
"It was a dream since I started. It took a long time, so I'm happy it was not just a one-shot thing."
- Finding his voice -
A Paris native, Naouri studied engineering in university, but decided to give singing a try in his early 20s. A breakthrough came when he was picked at age 25 by the Centre National d'Insertion Professionnelle des Artistes Lyriques in Marseille to train and tour in a production of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte."
The shows landed Naouri an agent, which helped him launch his professional career while completing his studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
Naouri's obvious stage charisma communicates a natural flair for theater, but learning to harness his voice proved a challenge.
"It is not a typical lyrical baritone voice," he said of his instrument. "It took me awhile to find the whereabouts of it."
"With the years, I've sort of come around to it," he said. "I sort of know the ins and outs and know how to find my way through it."
In Hoffmann, Naouri's villainy ranges from the farcical to the menacing, as when his character brainwashes a sickly young woman to sing herself to death in the opera's tragic second act. The scene includes a stirring trio with Hoffmann and the girl's father led by a muscular-voiced Naouri, in this incarnation called "Dr. Miracle."
"It's one of my favorite roles because it opened me many houses," Naouri said of Hoffmann. "I love the role."
Other prominent parts include the toreador Escamillo in "Carmen" and Germont in "La Traviata."
Particular favorite roles include the count in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," and the title part in "Falstaff," Verdi's final opera.
The dark hues of Naouri's voice and his tall frame can make him a candidate for other bad guys, such as Iago in "Otello," another juicy part he has played.
"The one thing I would not like to be characterized as is the 'Monsieur French specialist' because basically I love to sing in all languages," he said.
Naouri is married to the prominent soprano Natalie Dessay and the two sometimes sing together in concerts. Dessay still sings in recitals, but retired from opera performances in 2013 after starring turns at the Met and other big houses.
"I was too slow," he said. "I would have loved to do things with her here."