Financial Times, November 30, 2011
By Martin Bernheimer
Gounod: Faust, Metropolitan Opera New York, 29. November 2011
Faust, Metropolitan Opera, New York
Gounod’s romantically sweetened, naively superficial yet deliriously pretty version of Goethe’s Faust was first performed by the Met at its grand opening in 1883. The vehicle became so ubiquitous that wags dubbed the place a Faustspielhaus. The opera’s popularity has not been sustained in recent times, however, and the most recent production, a cheeky version staged by Andrei Serban in 2005, lasted only 16 performances.

Although Peter Gelb, the presumably budget-conscious super-impresario, might have revived it this season, he turned instead to a staging by Des McAnuff imported from, and shared with, English National Opera. At the US premiere on Tuesday it managed to rankle conservatives and disappoint progressives at the same time.

The director, celebrated for Jersey Boys on Broadway and Shakespeare in Canada, tried desperately to make Faust relevant – now there’s a dirty word – historically, sociologically and politically. He banished storybook kitsch, kept the stage dark and stark. He moved the action to the mid-20th century (back and forth between wars) and superimposed an irrelevant subplot about the creation of the atom bomb in Los Alamos. Faust the philosopher is here a laboratory scientist. Robert Brill’s basic set, embellished with video imagery, is a steel grid flanked by dizzying spiral staircases. The narrative, meticulously planned and neatly executed, is essentially tough, hyper-intellectual and relentlessly grim. Gounod’s opera, unfortunately, is none of these things. It is just a hum-along love story.

The Met argued sound better than sight. Although Gallic purists could not be ecstatic about the accents, either verbal or stylistic, the cast seemed committed to McAnuff’s cause.

Jonas Kaufmann enacted the protagonist’s plight sensitively, shading the line with heroic ardour and exquisite finesse, as needed. He sculpted long pianissimo phrases that took our breath away, if not his. Under the circumstances, one actually expected a diminuendo on the top C of “Salut, demeure” – a feat managed by such past paragons as Giuseppe Sabbatini and Giuseppe di Stefano. That turned out to be wishful expecting. Maybe next time.

Marina Poplavskaya, an early replacement for Angela Gheorghiu, played the emphatically modern Marguerite with stoic pathos. Essentially a daring singing-actress rather than a disciplined vocal technician, she gave all she had. Sometimes it was enough.

René Pape sang lustily as a jolly, debonair Méphistophélès. He even managed a nifty soft-shoe routine during his mock-serenade. Still, a bit more sardonic danger would have been useful.

Russell Braun found Valentin’s dramatic outbursts more congenial than his lyrical reflections. Michèle Losier brought gutsy bonhomie to Siébel’s Hosenrolle platitudes, and Wendy White simpered deftly as Marthe Schwerdtlein.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the much applauded conductor, dared restore passages often cut (including the Walpurgisnacht episode, here mimed rather than danced). He also managed to enforce unusually broad tempos without compromising sentimental nuances. He gave his singers steady support and rose gratefully to the gushing climaxes. The stage may have been cool, but the pit was warm.


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