Faust, or, You Only Live Twice

I went to Faust at the Met again last night and found it much more enjoyable that the opening night I saw a few weeks ago. This was in part because without exception the cast was more assured and in better voice, but it was in part because I knew what to ignore. Des McAnuff’s chaotic production does not improve upon a second viewing; it is still confused and confusing in points both large and small. If Faust, here a nuclear scientist with a heavy conscience, is going to back to try to live a better life, why does he behave like such a schmuck? (My original idea was that his rejuvenation was merely a flashback to the life that made him so sadface in the first place, but according to McAnuff this isn’t so.) Why does the chorus spend so much time filing through doors? Why is there a swordfight in 19-whatever? Can I find Marguerite’s Act IV getup at Urban Outfitters? I have no more answers now than I did at the prima.

But setting that aside I found much more to appreciate in the cast. First, the best thing going remains Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, which has such grace and lyricism and so little sugar and bombast that even a Gounod-aphobe like me can like it. The orchestra was on excellent form. Jonas Kaufmann sounded much freer and more assured in the title role and it’s really exciting singing if somewhat unidiomatic (excellent high C this time). Acting-wise his Faust still doesn’t add up but at least his temperature has risen a few degrees, less deadly serious, more cynical, and working his seduction of Marguerite like a courtesan whose rent is overdue. René Pape’s Méphistophélès remains understated, a dapper and wry mischief-maker, and his voice has such ease and silkiness that you’d take any offer he made you pretty quickly.

The biggest change for me was utterly falling for Marina Poplavskaya’s Marguerite this time, though more in an acting that vocal sense. Her guilelessness and isolation in her opening scenes, her never self-pitying hopelessness in the later ones and finally her delirium at the end all convinced. How good could this production have been if it were about her story? (Way better.) Vocally, she got through the opera more solidly this time, though her hollow and uneven tone is not pleasant, and the last few minutes were rough. Russell Braun again provided warm and mellifluous but not especially memorable support as Valentin, Michéle Losier was an excellent Siebel (as a recent Parterre review noted, she looks like an escapee from Newsies), and Theodora Hanslowe as Marthe got off to an unsure start but was quite funny in her scene with Pape (she was subbing for Wendy White as Marthe after the latter’s fall off the set
on Saturday night–thankfully she is alright but of course is taking a break).

I’ve been writing about a lot of new productions recently, where I really try to take everything as a piece (because that’s how they should function). But many performances are easier when you appreciate the good and leave out the bad–it’s a shame this Faust falls into that category even upon its first run of performances, but I actually am glad I saw it again. Also, can someone give me Faust’s lab’s red wine-dispensing water cooler for Christmas? Sometimes it’d make work much nicer. Thanks.

Performances remain with different casts–Roberto Alagna leading on December 23 and 28 (I have been there already this year, cartweels, ukulele, and all) and Joseph Calleja in January (utterly beautiful voice, allergic to acting).

Gounod, Faust. Metropolitan Opera, 12/20/2011, cast same as listed here except with Theodora Hanslowe as Marthe.

Some videos from the recent HD simulcast:

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  1. Dr. B, it seemed clear to me that it was supposed to be a hallucination (though Tommasini was less sure). What I found less obvious was the, uh, point. The atom bombs and innocent maidens scream ALLEGORY but what the hell is the message? This lack of a basic idea is a far more serious problem than some ambiguity about the framing.