The Hour, 14 December 2011
Gounod: Faust, Metropolitan Opera New York, ab 29. November 2011, Vorstellung am 10. Dezember 2011, Kino
Don't open your eyes for this beautiful opera
Maybe it's time to throw in the towel. Maybe Charles Gounod's "Faust," once one of the most popular of all operas, should be done only in concert. Certainly, from what's happening on stage at the Met's new rendering (a co-production with the English National Opera), an argument may be made for letting audiences hear, not see, what this romantic piece is all about.

What we might get is this glorious score in a setting that respects its source material. At the Met these days, a cockeyed concept fights thrilling singing by both principals and chorus. (This "Faust" is in HD at Fairfield University, Dec. 17.)

Taken from Goethe's version of the enduring tale of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, the libretto by Jules Barbier and Miichel Carré is based on Carré's play "Faust and Marguerite." That title is the clue: Gounod concentrates on the love-and-death story of the named characters, chucking Goethe's philosophical underpinnings. Unlike Boito's more substantial "Mefistofele," Gounod aims squarely for the heart.

But this is apparently not enough for director Des McAnuff who sees Gounod's work as a parable about the evils of atomic energy. In McAnuff's hands, Faust is a disillusioned scientist perhaps fed up with creating a weapon of mass destruction.

Choristers clad in white lab coats are fellow researchers when they're not being joyous townsfolk.

Also in the mix are the ghoulish damned who, in the Walpurgis Night scene, worship the bomb's lethal potential.

The story opens with Faust, at the point of suicide, reliving his life. Making a pact with Méphistophélès, the Devil, to exchange salvation for recapturing his vigorous youth, he woos the virginal Marguerite, herself tempted by baubles (the famous Jewel Song). The romance leads to murder and insanity. It's strong stuff, but the atomic story fights the text's emphasis on salvation through prayer and forgiveness.

The staging doesn't help. At various points, Faust and Méphistophélès, linked to each other for eternity, observe the action from two side staircases that reach to the flies. Jonas Kaufmann's Faust and René Pape's Méphistophélès get a lot of calf-building time, especially towards the end, as they ascend and re-ascend the stairs several times, like relay athletes, while Marina Poplavaskava's fiercely acted Marguerite appeals to heaven for absolution.

The three stars so build in intensity and feeling that the final moments of this nearly four-hour evening enthralled the audience into pin-drop silence. Pape is marvelous as the Devil, suave and satirical, from his booming voice to a sly little soft shoe. (Why do we enjoy evil so much?) Kaufmann, striking a handsome figure, is a superb technician, contrasting lovely pianissimo with sonorous crescendos, while Poplavaskava acts and sings with power and poignancy. Commendable, too, are Michèle Lowier as the loyal Siébel and Jonathan Beyer as Wagner.

From the soldiers' chorus ("Glory Immortal") to the cynical ode to the golden calf, the well-known dancers' waltz, arias for Faust, the Devil and Marguerite and the magnificent final trio, this is great music. Gifted conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin combines French delicacy with Italianate strength.

To close one's eyes against Robert Brill's ugly set and Peter Mumford's horrendous lighting is to experience grand opera at its most beautiful. Opening the eyes, however, transforms aural radiance into visual exhaustion.


 back top