The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2011
Gounod: Faust, Metropolitan Opera New York, 29. November 2011
A Chance to Do It Over
I'm getting pretty tired of the prevailing color palette of new Metropolitan Opera productions. Can't someone come up with something more original than black and white? Charles Gounod's "Faust," directed by Des McAnuff, follows the lead of "Anna Bolena" and "Don Giovanni" earlier this season in its somber hues. Mr. McAnuff, who is also the artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada and a Broadway stalwart ("Jersey Boys"), went a step further and updated "Faust" to the 20th century. He was trying to give it some of the Goethe source material's gravitas. Unfortunately, the opera resisted his efforts.

Mr. McAnuff made his title character a Robert Oppenheimer figure, responsible for the atomic bomb and its apocalyptic consequences, who is tormented by his achievements. Faust decides to kill himself but is forestalled by Méphistophélès, who sends him back to the time of his youth and innocence, beginning in the prebomb era. I know this because I read an advance interview with the director. But it's not all that clear in the production, which relies on imprecise suggestions ranging from bomb components in Faust's laboratory in Act I to some blinding flashes and soldiers in World War I uniforms.

It's more interesting than the usual sentimental Romanticism and treacly Christian piety inherent in this once hugely popular piece, but it's an awkward fit. Gounod's opera, unlike Goethe's epic, is not about the burden of knowledge; it's about an old man who wants to be young again so that he can make it with young girls. So is Faust's seduction and abandonment of Marguerite, which occupies most of the opera, a metaphor for his inevitable corruption?

Robert Brill's set is a vast metal scaffolding structure that frames the stage, with a catwalk and a spiral staircase on each side. Easily moved tables and benches, and Sean Nieuwenhuis's video of fast-moving clouds on the rear cyclorama, make for quick scene changes. Peter Mumford's lighting is the main source of what little color there is in the production—a deep pink for the Act III love duet; a sepia tinge that turns the death of Marguerite's pugnacious and unforgiving brother Valentin into a daguerreotype. Paul Tazewell's costumes provide a sense of period, and contrast Marguerite's innocence (virginal lace over Marian blue) with the matched evening dress and other outfits of Faust and Méphistophélès, who are alter egos in villainy here.

Mr. McAnuff left the chorus to stand in mass formation rather than directing them. In scenes that required dancing, such as Méphistophélès's "Golden Calf" aria, a few dancers cavorted in the foreground (choreography by Kelly Devine) while the chorus dropped back. Sometimes they appeared in lab coats, such as when the angelic choir sang "Christ is risen" to accompany the apotheosis of Marguerite—a scene which further confused the distinction between metaphor and experience.

Fortunately, the Met fielded a top-flight conductor and cast. Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra with buoyancy and French flair, making an ebullient 19th-century contrast to the gloomy 20th-century images onstage and moving the evening along. Jonas Kaufmann's darkly burnished tenor encompassed both the dramatic intensity and exquisite lyricism required of Faust. "Salut! demeure," his apostrophe to Marguerite's house, was a marvel of sensitivity and dreaminess, and Mr. Nézet-Séguin's floating orchestral accompaniment helped create the illusion of Faust in the thrall of innocence. At its end, Mr. Kaufmann simply sat on a bench with his back to the audience and stared upstage at the house; it was a potent directorial moment.

René Pape doesn't have to do much to pull off Méphistophélès—his big, penetrating bass and malevolent demeanor do it for him. He certainly looked like he was enjoying himself performing the devil's magic tricks. As Marguerite, Marina Poplavskaya started off well, with a sweetly flirty "Jewel Song" and a nicely calibrated love duet. But she struggled when the role turned more dramatic: She couldn't match Mr. Pape's volume in the church scene, and her final pleas for salvation in Act V sounded thin and shrill. Russell Braun was properly aggressive as Valentin; his baritone had a soldierly roughness rather than lyricism, and his duel to the death with Faust was elegantly executed. In the trouser role of Siébel, the boy who loves Marguerite, Michèle Losier displayed a sizeable, colorful mezzo voice with an impressive ring. Wendy White had a light touch for Marthe, the elderly flirt who fails to protect Marguerite; Mr. McAnuff gave her a moment of added poignancy when Valentin, home from the war, handed over her dead husband's helmet.

Other directorial touches helped put across the updated scenario: Méphistophélès turns a water cooler red (to provide wine for the crowd); Marguerite drowns her baby in a laboratory sink; the Walpurgisnacht sequence, often omitted, becomes an opportunity to stage a bomb test and a banquet attended by what look like Hiroshima survivors. Also, the whole experience turns out to be Faust's dying hallucination.

I don't blame Mr. McAnuff for trying to add a little rigor to this annoying story—it does have great tunes—but the logic doesn't track. You can't help looking at the holes in the concept rather than believing it..

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


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