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