New Met Faust bombs

You can’t accuse Des McAnuff’s new Met Opera Faust of the interpretive timidity that has plagued the house so far this season–we have atom bombs, manic dancing, time travel, and other things that suggest this is a “bold” production. The problem is that it’s incoherent and has minimal contact with this mostly lovely rendition of the opera’s score. Even the cast can’t save it, and it’s a strangely incomplete show.

Gounod, Faust. Metropolitan Opera, 11/29/11. New production premiere directed by Des McAnuff, sets by Robert Brill, costumes by Paul Tazewell, lights by Peter Mumford. Conducted by Yanick Nézet-Séguin with Jonas Kaufmann (Faust), Marina Poplavskaya (Marguerite), René Pape (Méphistophélès), Russell Braun (Valentin), Michèle Losier (Siebel).

Staging this opera is a challenge. It’s a light revue of romanticism and religious claptrap without the kind of metaphysics or ontological beard-tugging we expect from the Faust legend. Gounod’s plot and music never aspire to evoke anything beyond what can we can see and hear, even though his subject seems inherently symbolic. McAnuff clearly wants to reintroduce the philosophical and symbolic side of the Faust legend. His Faust is an atomic scientist with a guilt complex about all that he has wrought, and in the moments before he kills himself, a version of his sorry life flashes before his eyes. Innocence is corrupted and the world goes to shit and so on–truly an offer from Méphistophélès that he cannot refuse. Méphistophélès, a lot of mirroring and identical suits suggest, is just part of his own psyche.

But once Faust has gone back to his youthful state, this concept doesn’t do much for the plot. Newly young Faust sees Marguerite as the innocent world that he can’t help but destroy. But establishing her as Faust’s projection isn’t very helpful when her very Catholic downfall and eventual redemption are at the center of the plot. And why does this earnest guy abandon her in the first place (the eternal difficulty of reconciling a sex life with the pursuit of a PhD in the hard sciences)? There’s also the matter that the war the soldiers are leaving for and returning from is World War I, which produces nothing more horrible than some limps and jumpiness. Without starting the Genocide Olympics I don’t think you get to play the atom bomb history card and then just ignore that you have also drawn the World War I one–the era of gas, famine, and mass warfare without penicillin. Good times.

The execution is rather clumsy. The blocking is OK but not at all musical. The metal unit set makes the entire setting lab-like with spiral staircases and multiple levels of walkways, justified by the idea that it’s all in Faust’s head, and the white coats of the lab occasionally reappear. It’s functional enough but the sight lines aren’t great and it’s ugly, made more so by the attempt to soften things up with some roses in the love duet (see below for many more pictures). Lighting is harsh and some cues were badly mistimed. Crowd scenes are cluttered and include some incredibly awkward dancing–why Méphistophélès does the Robot during the “Veau d’or” beats me. Some giant projections of Faust and mostly Margeurite’s faces on the scrims are confusing and seem lifted out of Robert Lepage’s Damnation de Faust. (And why her visage first appears during Valentin‘s music in the prelude is a puzzle.)

Yet other things are totally old school, like the surprisingly not bad sword fight between Faust and Valentin. There is also a giant soldier puppet, and one of Death? (Just saying.) By the Walpurgisnacht we are back in the World War II era, with an appearance by your obligatory writhing demons, here apparent nuclear bomb victims. The bomb finally goes off, via a projection, and there is also a chorus of scientists with those mushroom cloud glasses I remember from Doctor Atomic. The final scene is minimalist and Marguerite is saved by running up a lot of stairs into the sky. Old Faust reappears and finally gets to die properly. There you go.

Perhaps I should stop trying to explaining it. It’s not without ideas but it’s an attempt at abstraction that never adds up. What does Faust want, anyway? He’s totally passive here. Adding the science seems to make too many other things not work, and fails to show Gounod’s sometimes flimsy score to best advantage. The music has charm and gentle lyricism, but the production isn’t interested in what’s on the surface.

Unfortunately this really held back the strong cast, none of whom seemed to be feeling it. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting was very fine and the orchestra sounded great. He’s something like the Fabio Luisi of French repertoire, transparent and stylish and fleet (with a few exceptions that got drawn-out tempos such as “Salut” and the love duet). The HIP aesthetic seems to have gone mainstream, huh? I wish the staging had been half as elegant.

Among the cast René Pape was the only person who seemed to be engaged and having any fun, playing Méphistophélès for laughs and singing with suave strength and wit. He’s not really evil, but he’s certainly up to no good. (Nuclear bombs, those mischievous little buggers.) The “Veau d’or” was taken at an energetic tempo, giving this moribund evening some life.

Jonas Kaufmann was a strangely distant and underplayed Faust; the assignment to play a skirt-chaser as a moral philosopher seemed to rob him of charisma and personality. Except for a few moments of poignant detachment he looked to be on autopilot. I have to wonder if someone with less taste and more smarm would be more effective here.* After getting off to a somewhat intonationally suspect start (perhaps a reaction to his heinous mustache as Old Faust, who knows) he did some really luscious singing, particularly in the love duet, with incredibly long breath and natural phrasing. His is a heroic voice for this lyric role, but he still managed a respectable high C in “Salut” and the weight in his lower register helped in Act 1.

This was the first time I had heard Marina Poplavskaya since her 2007 debut in War and Peace. She’s now something of a Gebrauchsdiva for the house (and for the ROH) but that belies her peculiarity, and she seems miscast as Marguerite. Her acidic, often hollow-sounding voice varies enormously in color from note to note, she doesn’t really do legato, and tended to coo in the love duet with some seriously strange phrasing (and weird French). A few high notes, notably the As in the Jewel Song, were just shrieks. Her husky tone plus standoffish presence don’t play well as virginal innocence, and she only looked really at home when she put on an enormous tiara from the jewel box and cast a Turandot look. (And she only sometimes remembered the weight of her eight-months-large pregnant belly later on.) Her prison mad scene, though, was actually quite affecting and intense despite extremely uneven singing. She’s not boring, I’ll give her that, and I was glad this performance included the Spinning Song, one of the score’s best moments.

Russell Braun had solid tone and style but a very wide vibrato and uneven production as Valentin. Michèle Loisier was a bright spot as Siébel, with a big and bright mezzo. The chorus sounded fine, though they almost lost Nézet-Séguin in the waltz.

All in all it is a disappointment, and strangely unfulfiling. Gounod’s score is so modest; there’s just no compelling dramatic centerpiece.

It seems to me that the Met imported the wrong London Faust. This one is from the English National Opera, but David McVicar’s Royal Opera production is a delight that does a great job reading the piece, so check that one out on DVD. If you want to see this Met one I won’t stop you, it runs until January 19 including second cast Faust Roberto Alagna and third cast Joseph Calleja.

*Roberto Alagna will be singing a few performances in December.

Video (pictures below):

Way more pictures. That none show Valentin while alive is the fault of the Met photographers, not me:

 All photos copyright Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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  1. Thanks for the review. I'm going to see the HD broadcast in a few weeks, so this gives me something to base my expectations on. I had my suspicions about the set when I saw it advertised earlier this year, but hey. The Met's going to do what it's going to do. Still, I'm looking forward to seeing Pape and Kaufmann do their thing.

  2. Unfortunately the Met and ENO have a partnership agreement. When ROH pulled off the coup of getting Turnage to write his first opera in years, the Met went into overdrive and came up with Nico Muhly. Massive marketing programme, Muhly sold as a new Britten. Unfortunately he bombed hugely (same term, haha !) which is perhaps why Muhly's latest is discreetly rescheduled.

  3. Doundou Tchil–it was more wishful thinking than anything else, I know the Met generally wants new stuff and the McVicar staging is almost ten years old. It's just so good! It's the first Faust I've seen that I actually really liked.

    I wish we were getting a revised Anna-Nicole here instead of Muhly. There were somethings about it that bothered me but I think with a few tweaks it could be pretty great, and it deserves to be widely seen. And the Jones production is fabulous, no need for a new one yet.

    I would prefer not to begrudge the opera houses their marketing programs, though, even if I disagree with their choices. You need to get people talking, that's their job!

  4. I heard a rumour (reliable source) that the Theater an der Wien is interested in staging The Minotaur, but I imagine they would go for a new production. Beyond being competent and character-focused I'm afraid the ROH production didn't leave much of an impression on me.

  5. I love Birtwistle's music and I LOVE his operas: "Punch & Judy", "The Mask of Orpheus", "The Second Mrs. Kong", "Gawain" (the revised version), "The Last Supper" and "The Minotaur" are all terrific. I love the libretto for "The Second Mrs. Kong" by Russell Hoban, I think it's brilliant.

    Now, if you go to opera for things like "catchy tunes" or "showpieces for female singers", Birtwistle's operas probably wouldn't be your cup of latte, but they simply WORK as theater. "The Minotaur" DVD is highly recommended and there's great recordings of "Punch & Judy" and "The Mask of Orpheus" available.

    Instead of Gounod's trifle, the Met should be doing Busoni's great "Doktor Faust", which has been done only once, a run in 2001.

  6. Sorry, Henry, I'm not a big Gounod fan either (as you probably got from this review–the fact that the musical performance was pretty good didn't go too far with me) but I have NOTHING against catchy tunes or showy writing for the female voice and don't think modern stuff is innately superior for any reason other than it's new. Actually I LOVE catchy tunes and showy writing for women, really, when properly deployed.

  7. Poplavskaya's prominance COMPLETELY escapes me. As you say the voice is (ahem) not good, she's a cold stage presence, she finds it difficult to connect with the audience. And she's impossible to work with – unbearably diva-ish antics already at this early stage in her career. Surely she'll fade soon.

    Oh and the Minotaur is coming back to the ROH in 2013. Good news as I missed it the first time and it's meant to be great.

  8. I'd guess that if other things don't catch up with her first Popslavskaya is not going to be in for the long haul for vocal longevity–that's some oddball technique she's got going there.

    It has been pointed out to me that I may have gotten the above interpretation wrong and this production did not show Faust revisiting his past but the rather more conventional trope of him getting another shot at life. I say that this makes NO SENSE WHATSOEVER with the bombs and such, because his love life is whack and he builds the bomb anyway, but I don't even know anymore.

  9. Hi Zerb, I thought about your review when I saw the production last night. My review is up too. What I find troublesome about Popslavskaya and I agree that right now she can't seem to produce a consistent tone at all. She can sound beautiful one moment and harsh and squally the next. There seems to be no rhyme or reason behind why she sounds so great one minute and so terrible the next. I suspect that she's essentially a short soprano, maybe perhaps even a lyric mezzo with extreme problems producing high notes.

  10. Couldn't disagree more…This was the best performance of Faust I've ever seen. Nezet-Seguin conducted a precise & swift moving Faust, his beat could be felt in every singer's performance. Kaufmann is the great tenor of our time & he was thrilling; Pape was a superb Mefisto – a great improvement over his performance a few years ago; and Poplovskaya was again a terrific singing actress, riding the waves of Gounod's beautiful music with her large expressive spinto. The production didn't make much sense, but who cared, I was so happy to be there.

  11. What a pity that the MET is incapable of creating a production that does justice to the music and we have to keep our eyes closed half the time to enjoy it… I did not think they could top the devilettes dancing around in the church scene in the last production and turning what should be a terrifying scene into a joke, but here we have Mephisto and Marguerite sitting happily side by side while weirdos bounce up and down on the balconies….
    My favorite memory of a Faust is of Mirella Freni crouching at the door of a church unable to enter, and through the darkness inside you hear Ghiaurov's voice…. it was so simple… and so effective. When are they going to figure out that less is more?

  12. I just saw Faust; I had to send a note to GELB! The soprano is second-rate, period. Any American Master student could have done better. She doesn't have a strange technique, she has NO technique. She has extreme lip and jaw tension. The sound is uneven because there's no column of breath with support. When she inhales she exhibits neck tension which belies serious flaws in training. The coloratura passages were a mess and as others have said, the high notes were tortured! She is billed as a spinto but she does not have the easy SIZE of a spinto that is at home with heavier roles. I know because I am a spinto and heavy roles, once they are worked into the voice are pretty effortless. She has to force which causes that hard sound.
    All of this seems to me the result of a new approach to opera that is visual. I like good staging; but it serves the singer, not the other way around. Opera is about great sound. Unforgettable moments of epiphany where SINGERS touch our souls. I don't care if the person looks the part, is svelte, or young. In fact, in the past, most of the Met's roster would still be honing their skills in local companies and touring productions. But there is a rush to use them while they are YOUNG and pretty. They aren't seasoned so what we are getting are singers who are not yet developed and it shows. Who is going to buy a ticket for this? Seriously, scholrs and musicologists must be apoplexic! I know as a singer that it's painful to watch Marina Poplavskaya. She will soon experience severe vocal problems and disappear to teach some poor trusting students who don't know better. What a tragedy!

  13. Albi: I am not an expert and whilst I agree with a lot of the comments above, I felt a little uneasy with the fast pace and decibel level of the orchestra, At times, particularly in Salut I felt the orchestra was in a race with the tenor and wished for the sensitivity of an Abbado, Pappano or Amiliato who appear to follow the singer, rather than lead. I base my comments upon viewing the HD film and of course there may be a difference in the decibel level live.