The News Times, December 1, 2011
Jerome R. Sehulster
Gounod: Faust, Metropolitan Opera New York, 29. November 2011
Devilishly fine production of 'Faust' at NYC's Met
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Charles Gounod's "Faust," which opened last Tuesday, is an evening of fine singing, just like it was back in the good old days. And under Des McAnuff's taut direction, the characters have a naturalism that brings to the fore some of the very raw emotions, explicit in the text and stage directions, but often buried under the gloss of Gounod's sentimental score.

McAnuff's overall conception of "Faust" is thought-provoking: At the beginning (Act 1, Scene 1) we meet the brilliant but now aged Dr. Faust in his laboratory. He was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb, and remorse over the subsequent hell wrought on earth by this weapon of mass destruction at the end of World War II drives him to suicide. As he dies, his life flashes before his eyes. He remembers his days at the end of the Great War and is flooded with regrets: he squandered his youth, he destroyed his only true love, and he understands that all this and his unleashing the power of nuclear energy were, perhaps, because of a deal with the Devil.

Robert Brill's unit set creates a large space bracketed by proscenium-high spiral staircases and walkways. Appropriate props (benches, doors, tables, etc.) suggest the various scenes and back screen projections (racing clouds, a wall of roses) heighten the color and motion of the production. Paul Tazewell's costumes effectively reflect the time period.

Much of the hype surrounding this "Faust" concerns the appearance of rising star Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. Kaufmann's dark tenor is not the voice one usually associates with this repertory, but as it warms up through the evening it brightens considerably. His "Salut! demeure chaste et pure" was elegantly and beautifully sung. A dashing man, Kaufmann leaves no one wondering if the shy and innocent Marguerite will crumble under his advances.

His foil, Mephistophelès, the Devil you say, is given a tour-de-force performance by basso Rene Pape. He is a dandy, he is a cad, all with a swagger and a voice that literally pours off the stage. Pape's "Le veau d'or" is as big a showstopper as it should be. Both he and Kaufmann played off each other well, making this "Faust" more of a buddy opera than we're used to.

The doomed Marguerite is sung by the soulful Marina Poplavskaya. It's a complex role, actually: Marguerite must convince us of her youth and her love for family, but then make convincing her passion for Faust. Else it's just "the Devil made me do it." Marguerite's fall from grace is heightened by the often-cut aria "Il ne revient pas," followed directly by the return from battle of her dear brother Valentin, who, mortally wounded in a duel with Faust, curses her. The haunting Cathedral Scene is placed after this. Poplavskaya captures every emotional aspect of her character.

Baritone Russell Braun is a forceful, but lyrical Valentin; Siebel is sung by Michèle Losier, Marthe, Marguerite's friend, is sung by Wendy White.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin is a very special conductor in my book. His reading of "Faust" here was at once lyrical, nuanced, yet grand in the right moments. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus under Donald Palumbo rose to its many challenges: the Kermesse Scene was festive; the Soldier's Chorus was rousing.

Inside the larger conceptual envelope, McAnuff's production had several neat details. The clouds racing in the background suggest to me the swift passing of time in memory; the background of roses "bloom" as Marguerite's love for Faust blossoms; Mephistophelès performs his share of magic tricks; his news that Marthe's husband has been killed in the war is confirmed when a returning soldier gives her husband's helmet, and so on.

"Faust" is a "singer's opera" if ever there was one. The Met gives us a slate of top-notch singers, a sensitive master of the French repertory in the pit, and a thought-provoking production to boot. Don't miss it.

"Faust" is performed again on the Met stage on the evenings of Dec. 6, 13, 17, 20, 23, 28; and Jan. 5, 9, 13, 16, and 19. There are some cast changes. The Dec. 10 matinee performance of "Faust" will be taped and telecast in HD as encores at the Quick Center in Fairfield on Saturday, Dec. 17, at noon and 6 p.m. The Ridgefield Playhouse telecasts the encore HD "Faust" on Sunday, Dec. 11, at noon. Tickets for performances at the Met are available at or call 212-362-6000; tickets for the HD telecasts may be purchased via links through the Met's website.


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