The Star-Ledger, December 02, 2011
Ronni Reich
Gounod: Faust, Metropolitan Opera New York, 29. November 2011
A flashy 'Faust': Despite bells and whistles, new adaptation disappoints
In the new adaptation of Gounod's "Faust" at the Metropolitan Opera, the curtain opens on the title character's laboratory, which consists of little besides spiral staircases on opposite sides of the stage, some exposed scaffolding and a few tables.

It looks like it could as easily be an industrial-style bar and, in the next scene, it is. Later, it's a house as one might be simplistically drawn in a child's book.

Director Des McAnuff's production updates the already loose retelling of Goethe's story so that Faust relives his youth beginning with World War I and continuing through the advent of the atomic bomb. To illustrate the setting, the bomb was shown via projection, there were some white-coated lab technicians buzzing around and soldiers were appropriately costumed by Paul Tazewell.

But with its one-size-fits-all approach, Robert Brill's set was never vividly anywhere.

Instead, from a conceptual and visual standpoint, opening night on Tuesday was rather vague and not exactly tasteful. Various bells and whistles grabbed attention - moving cloud projections, roses falling from the sky, huge animated character portraits, a mysterious soldier puppet and a Death figure - but offered little substance.

McAnuff, whose credits include "Jersey Boys," staged the drama well within those confines, shaping moving scenes between Marguerite and Faust. Valentin's death also made a strong impression, with brother and sister writhing in opposite directions as he cursed Marguerite with his last breath.

Still, the conjuring was largely left to the performers.

Appropriately, it was René Pape as Méphistophélès who best cast a spell over the audience. Dapperly clad in a white suit and equipped with a magic cane, he enchanted with his sonorous bass and sinister grace. Dancers, choreographed by Kelly Devine, twitched eerily in response to his song.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin led a vital account of the score that mirrored the devil's power and the youthful energy the title character covets. The music burst with a lust for life in crowd scenes, which were hardily sung by the chorus.

Particularly in the first act, when singers had to compete with a little too much orchestral sound, Nézet-Séguin seemed at times overzealous. Yet he served the drama well, lending a light touch to Faust and Marguerite's gorgeously blended love duet and, by contrast, drawing out deep, penetrating angst leading into the fourth act.

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann made a memorable Faust, his singular brown sugar timbre and the virility of his singing distinguishing his interpretation. If his sensitive moments could sound overly held back, at the top of his range and at full force, he was spectacular.

Marina Poplavskaya, in her third major role in two seasons at the Met, still has not fully lived up to the promise of her dramatic instincts and her voluptuous soprano, which had a fascinating way of sounding ominously dark in one phrase and blazingly bright in another.

She sang sloppily in the quick scales and trills of the "Jewel Song" and lacked consistency in her upper range, sometimes sounding strained and taking big dramatic breaths to wind up before climactic notes.

Michèle Losier gave an energetic, polished portrayal of Marguerite's young admirer Siébel and Russell Braun lent his suave baritone to Valentin.

There was much to recommend in these performances. If the production concept had been more clearly and evocatively executed, there could have been even more to the overall experience.


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