Met’s Atomic Age “Faust” still a directorial nuclear bomb

March 22, 2013
By Judith Malafronte

Piotr Beczala in the title role and Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Des McAnuff’s 2011 production of Faust returned to New York City’s Metropolitan Opera Thursday night, without the heavy-hitting cast and conductor who were the few survivors of the highly critical reviews that greeted its opening.

Charismatic young conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been replaced by Alain Altinoglu, whose chief strength seems to be not complaining about an obvious lack of rehearsal time. Though he took revenge by racing through the beauties of Gounod’s enduring and sentimental score, this spared the audience too much time pondering McAnuff’s muddled and misplaced Doctor Atomic concept.

The Tony-award-winning director turns the aging scholar-alchemist who sells his soul to the devil into a disillusioned nuclear physicist who has a hallucinatory, guilt-ridden dream while taking poison. References to Hiroshima survivors (crossing the stage during the overture), the mindlessness of war (a giant recruiting army-puppet hauled out for the soldiers’ chorus) and the power of faith (Méphistophélès’ swooning under the power of Valentin’s cross) challenge the audience with video projections of Marguerite’s head floating, Oz-like, over the stage, garish light-shows (from Peter Mumford), and a pedestrian devil no one would fancy.

Retrofitting Goethe’s philosophy and theology to Barbier and Carré’s frothy libretto doesn’t work. Faust—the grand French opera and not the medieval German legend—has endured because its story of seduction, betrayal and redemption is fueled by gorgeous melodies, stirring choral writing, and well-drawn characters straight out of 19th century central casting. Intellectuals dismiss its tawdriness, romantics love it shamelessly, and the perfect Faust probably hasn’t been put on here since the Met opened its doors in 1883 with an Italian version.

As Marguerite, who first appears to old Doctor Faust as a sinfully cute lab technician, Marina Poplavskaya (a replacement for Angela Gheorghiu, who rejected the un-Romantic concept) is the only remaining cast member from the house’s 2011 mounting, and her comfort with McAnuff’s show is revealed in a confident, quirky performing style. While Poplavskaya’s vocal technique sounds improvised and insecure–and shredded completely in the final trio–her dramatic commitment and attractive middle-voice timbre are plusses.

Having revealed his distaste for directorial willfulness in a recent interview, tenor Piotr Beczala sings the title role his own way, with ringing tone and suave phrasing, without sounding particularly French (only the excellent mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne as Siébel boasts that authenticity).

John Relyea is not entirely to blame for the cheezy, nightclub-magician characterization of Méphistophélès, or for the water-cooler-to-wine trick that flopped, but unglamorous, workaday singing and self-conscious acting did nothing to arouse dangerous excitement or fascinating mystery. Not until his taunting Act Four serenade did Relyea attempt any dynamics or suave phrasing, and though obviously striving for volume, the bass-baritone’s voice was often inaudible.

Alexey Markov brought secure, dark sound in the Russian manner to the role of Valentin and Avant de quitter ces lieux was afforded a suitably old-school stand-and-sing presentation. The Met chorus provided its customary plush vocalism, nimbly moving from scientists to soldiers to peasants to ethereal spirits with committed professionalism.

Faust runs through April 5.

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