Vogue, December 01, 2011
by Adam Green
Gounod: Faust, Metropolitan Opera New York, 29. November 2011
The Beautiful and the Damned: The Metropolitan Opera’s New Faust
As the lights go down for the overture of the Metropolitan Opera’s new Faust, which had its premiere Tuesday night, we are faced with a giant, Chuck Close–style black-and-white projection of an old man’s face. Then, with the opening strains of Gounod’s 1859 score, gleamingly played by the Met orchestra under the baton of the nifty, young conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, it’s clear we’re in for an evening of shamelessly ingratiating (and irresistible) melodies. But the real star of this Faust is that haunted-looking codger on the curtain who, minus the senior-citizen makeup, turns out to be the thrillingly gifted—and seriously charismatic—tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Even without flirting with the audience or launching into “I Go to Rio,” he gives Hugh Jackman a run for his money in the swoon-inducing department. After Kaufmann’s tender yet potent account of “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” in Act III, my date leaned over and, in a throaty whisper, said, “Whoa—this guy’s got it all.”

In the tradition of the impresario Rudolph Bing, who ran the institution from 1950 to 1972, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb has ushered in a series of innovations, among them productions staged by such theater directors as Nicholas Hytner, Michael Grandage, and Bartlett Sher. Here, Des McAnuff (the guy behind such hits as Jersey Boys and the Broadway-bound revival of Jesus Christ Superstar) brings a masterful eye for striking stage images to Gounod’s take on Goethe’s take on the Faust legend—a classic tale of boy meets girl, boy sells soul to the devil, boy seduces and abandons girl, girl goes mad, boy goes to hell, with plenty of crowd-pleasing tunes. The production, which makes excellent use of Sean Nieuwenhuis’s eye-popping video projections, Robert Brill’s Le Corbusier–meets–fin-de-siècle–Paris sets, and Paul Tazewell’s lush costumes, has several powerful—and affecting—visual moments. But it unfruitfully moves the proceedings from sixteenth-century Germany to the era between the World Wars. And it freights the frothily constructed opera with more portent, political comment, and intimations of deeper meaning—not to mention a cacophony of different theatrical styles—than it can bear.

When the curtain goes up, we are greeted by a chorus of wretched souls straight out of Sweeney Todd, and when Kaufmann’s Faust emerges upstage through a swirl of mist, we half expect Sondheim to take over from Gounod. Next thing you know, we’re in a laboratory filled with white-coated scientists and large nuclear bombs, and we’re checking our programs to make sure that we haven’t shown up for John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. Before the evening is through, we will have experienced flashbacks from Les Miserables, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Julie Taymor's Magic Flute, and McAnuff’s own production of The Who’s Tommy (the choreography is by Kelly Devine).

But who cares when you’ve got such a glorious cast? As the disillusioned, old scientist of the title who sells his soul for one last chance to rekindle the fires of youth, Kaufmann, of course, is a knockout. He’s handsome, he acts with un-operatic sincerity, he radiates passion, and he caresses Gounod’s melodies with a smooth, supple tenor, characterized by baritone-like warmth and effortless virtuosity. René Pape is a suave, insinuating Méphistophélès; Michèle Losier brings a newsboy’s pluck (and a lovely mezzo-soprano) as a smitten teenage lad; and baritone Russell Braun, as a soldier undone by his sister’s dishonor, has the face of a silent film star. It is the Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya, however, who gives the second star turn of the production as Marguerite, the pure, simple girl who falls under Faust’s spell. Poplavskaya exudes tragedy, danger, and sex, allowing her to imbue the paper-thin role with a complex welter of emotions. She’s charming and slightly naughty as a girl besotted by fancy baubles in the famous “Jewel Song” and devastating, with short hair and a haunted aura, as a prisoner who has killed her own child. What her voice lacks in technical perfection, it more than makes up in spirit and spontaneity.

And when Poplavskaya and Kaufmann get together—watch out! Generally, when operatic lovers spend the better part of an act dithering about whether to kiss each other, I start to climb out of my skin. But in the extended Act III seduction scene, these two modulate from the modest to the flirty to the reluctant to the anguished to the smoldering with a level of musicianship and emotional intensity that is ravishing.


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