The New York Times, November 30, 2011
Gounod: Faust, Metropolitan Opera New York, 29. November 2011
This Faust Builds Atom Bombs (He Still Sings)
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
It is best to put aside any knowledge you may have of Goethe when attending a performance of Gounod’s “Faust.” There is beautiful music — stirring ensembles and a few gotcha arias — in Gounod’s score. But this melodramatic opera is anything but philosophical.

The standard rap against “Faust” is that Gounod turns the characters into stereotypes, with music to match. As Gounod presents him, Faust, an embittered old philosopher who has signed a contract with the devil, becomes just another in a lineage of dashing young tenor heroes pining for a young woman and showing off his top notes. Gounod’s Méphistophélès seems far too charming to be malevolent; and the pretty young Marguerite is a little shallow, smitten as much by a casket of jewels as by the young Faust’s ardor.

Who cares? This melodious opera has been ensnaring audiences since its 1859 Paris premiere. Still, it is better if a production does not look too deeply for elements of existential despair that are simply not in the piece, and that seems the problem with the new “Faust” that the Metropolitan Opera presented on Tuesday night, a co-production with the English National Opera, directed by the two-time Tony Award winner Des McAnuff in his Met debut. (Mr. McAnuff’s acclaimed revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is coming to Broadway in the spring.)

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, who has been actively recruiting directors from the theater world, brought Mr. McAnuff into the “Faust” project. Tuesday’s performance was conducted by the impressively gifted Yannick Nézet-Séguin and starred the charismatic tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.

The production, though rich with ideas and theatrically daring, is finally rather clinical and oppressive. Mr. McAnuff intriguingly updates the story to the period between the world wars. Faust, usually presented as an old philosopher who feels he has wasted his life with fruitless scholarship, is here a middle-aged scientist, first seen wearing a sensible three-piece brown suit. Dr. Faust works in a big laboratory where the atomic bomb is under development.

The staging uses some effective video segments, including huge, mesmerizing black-and-white close-ups of Faust’s and Marguerite’s faces. There are moments of aching vulnerability in the dramatic performances that Mr. McAnuff draws from a talented cast. I will not soon forget one image of the willowy soprano Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite, her hair shorn short, wearing a workhouse uniform and thick leather shoes: she is placed in a makeshift jail cell, having killed, in a fit of madness, the baby she bore Faust.

But the grimness and irony that pervade the production feel imposed on Gounod’s opera, not drawn from it. During the first scene, I thought I was going to be swept away. Robert Brill’s unit set is built of metallic, three-tiered scaffolding with spiral stairways and balconies on either side. Yes, tiered sets are becoming standard issue in new Met productions. But this one is placed at the rear of the stage, not the front, and it frames the action dramatically, at least at first. But before long, this modern metallic set feels constricting and intrusive.

As the music started, huddled masses walked slowly across the stage: twisted figures, presumably the condemned souls whose ranks Faust would soon join. Though rather heavy-handed, it was a striking sight that captured the mood of the orchestral introduction, with its entwining lines and weighty harmonies, conveyed grippingly in the elegant, darkly textured performance Mr. Nézet-Séguin drew from the Met orchestra.

Soon the stage was filled with choristers portraying the scientists on the project, all in white lab coats with note pads in hand. (The costumes are by Paul Tazewell.) Méphistophélès, here the phenomenal bass René Pape, appears as a dapper gentlemen in a cream-white suit holding a fancy cane. Imagine a diabolical William Powell. To show the devil transforming the aging Faust into an eager young man, Mr. McAnuff relies on good old-fashioned stage smoke: Mr. Kaufmann disappeared into a cloud and emerged in a matching white suit, now Méphistophélès’s protégé. I wish the production had had more touches as playful as this one.

The side staircases gave Faust and Méphistophéelès vantage points from which to watch the crowd at the inn in Act II, as Valentin, Marguerite’s protective brother (the sturdy baritone Russell Braun), and his friend Wagner (Jonathan Beyer, a fresh-voiced young baritone in a Met debut) joined soldiers going off to war. Singing his strophic song about the golden calf, Mr. Pape’s Méphistophélès especially relished the line that “Satan led the dance.” At that moment the dancing crowd broke into twisted, uncontrollable gyrations (the work of choreographer Kelly Devine).

But I could not imagine what was going on when a couple of soldiers manipulated a gigantic saluting soldier puppet. And at the end of Act III, when Marguerite succumbs to Faust’s entreaties and Méphistophélès laughs in triumph, another gigantic figure appears, this one a monstrous thing in a black cloak. Was it Voldemort, come to “Faust”?

Though the singers gave their all, this downer of a production sometimes undermined their work. Mr. Kaufmann, a Met superstar who recently performed a rare song recital on the Met stage, was a handsome, vocally splendid Faust. He sang the pensive and romantic passages with veiled dusky colorings and tender lyricism, and unleashed pent-up power in full-bodied phrases, capped by fearless high notes.

Ms. Poplavskaya is a spontaneous, uninhibited artist whose singing, however compelling, can be uneven and quirky, as it sometimes was here. Still, her sound was shimmering, plush and penetrating. She excelled in the beautiful “Ballad of the King of Thule,” with its Renaissance-tinged modal harmonies. And in the “Jewel Song,” in which Marguerite discovers the box of goodies, her scintillating coloratura runs, if not entirely accurate, were heady and ebullient.

Mr. Pape’s vocally stentorian Méphistophélès was all suavity and calculation. The mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier brought a rich voice and impishness to the pants role of Siébel, Faust’s student, who loves Marguerite.

The fine singing and the glowing playing of the orchestra were weighed down by the staging in the final scene. The delirious Marguerite regains her reason, resists Faust’s entreaties and prays for forgiveness in a soaring melody. Her redemption is announced by an affirming celestial chorus and pealing organ. There is noting subtle about it.

Here, as Marguerite steadfastly climbed tiers of steps to meet her heavenly reward, the choristers, still in white lab coats, stood on the side balconies and stairs, looking oddly serious. In a final image, Mr. Kaufmann re-emerged as the weary old Faust in his study, who this time successfully completed his suicide through poison.

Was this the devil’s way of exacting his due? Was the whole episode with Marguerite Faust’s dream? The ending of “Faust” is not exactly ambiguous. The one thing no one in the audience should feel is confused.


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