A superb cast wins out over confused staging in Met’s “Faust”
For most Germans who were taught to revere Goethe, disliking Gounod’s Faust is a matter of principle. His watered-down version of their national classic was considered so sacrilegious that to this day, most German opera houses perform the opera under the title “Margerethe.” It is ironic, then, that the most vocally convincing production of Faust in recent years brings together two German singers on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff’s new take on Faust, which had its premiere on Tuesday night, is a mostly grim affair enlivened here and there by moments of technical sorcery. What it will most likely be remembered for, though, is its two male leads: René Pape as a satanically charismatic Méphistophélès and Jonas Kaufmann, radiant in the title role. Marina Poplavskaya, though vocally uneven, added a fiercely dramatic portrayal of the hapless Marguerite.
McAnuff sets the action in Germany between the two world wars. Faust is a scientist developing a nuclear bomb in a laboratory framed by metallic staircases, which provide the set for the entire opera. Disillusioned with life and science, he prepares a poison with which to end his life. The appearance of Méphistophélès, their pact to grant Faust a second youth and a chance to woo and eventually ruin Marguerite, are all portrayed as a flashback in Faust’s mind during the final minutes of his life.
That explains the psychedelic and nightmarish look of the production, designed by Robert Brill, where starkly utilitarian sets are bathed in flashes of acid light while video projections shift from Magritte skies to fluorescent beds of roses to eerie close-ups of the protagonists. The purpose of two giant puppets, one of a soldier, the other of a Grim Reaper, was less obvious.
Welcome comic relief came in the scenes with Méphistophélès, whose cane is endowed with the power to make flowers wilt and, in the Tavern scene, turn the contents of a water cooler into red wine. Ingenious lighting by Peter Mumford allows him to virtually disappear in plain view.
Not that Pape needs props to make his character come to life. Sardonic, suave and stylish at first, becoming progressively more sinister, the role of Méphistophélès appears tailored to his vocal personality. In Le veau d’or, his powerful bass seems to mock the orchestral forces assembled in the pit, where Yannick Nézet-Séguin whipped up a passionate, urgent performance form the Met orchestra. His O nuit, etends sur eux ton ombre was noble and solemn.
The casting of Kaufmann in the role of Faust was equally felicitous. His performance will surely cement his standing as the darling tenor of Met audiences, whom he previously wowed in Carmen and Die Walküre. His voice is in glorious form, supple, strong and tinged with baritone-like depths. Paired with Kaufmann’s innate musical intelligence, it gives shape and color to every phrase. His Salut! Demeure chaste et pure was inflected with tender lyricism, culminating in a joyous powerful high C.
Poplavskaya is not such an obvious choice for the role of Marguerite: her timbre seems too dark and knowing, her attack too sharp at times for such a girlish role. But she is a fine actress and the Met is evidently grooming her for stardom – last season she sang Violetta in La Traviata and Elisabetta in Don Carlo. Of all the characters in Faust hers undergoes the greatest change, from coyly flirtatious maiden to a woman mad with grief and driven to drown her illegitimate child. Poplavskaya threw herself into the part wholeheartedly with vocal shadings to match. Her sewing scene (no spinning wheel here) was beautifully pared back, her rendition of Le Roi de Thule arresting in its simplicity. The high notes in her Jewel Aria and her final scene, however, sometimes seemed on the verge of snapping. But the duet between her and Kaufmann were divine, the single word “éternelle…” spun out like shimmering silk.
The Canadian mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier made her Met debut in the trouser role of Siébel, showing off a golden timbre and fine musicality. Wendy White sounded almost too good as Marguerite’s meddling neighbor, Marthe. Russell Braun brought a smooth but imprecise baritone to the role of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother who returns from war to find her pregnant and is killed in duel by Faust – while a sneering Méphistophélès licks his lips.
Given the historical context chosen by McAnuff – with overt references to Hiroshima and more subtle ones to the Holocaust — it is odd that Méphistophélès is not given any real political clout. To the end, this devil seems more concerned with his own conquest of Marguerite’s soul than any ambition for Total War and the annihilation of mankind, which, ultimately, is truer to Gounod’s opera.
Faust runs through Dec. 20 with the same cast and, with cast changes, from Dec 23 to Jan 19, 2012. metopera.org; (212) 362 6000