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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Faust

Ed. Note: This is the preview of the Met's new Faust. For a complete review of the Dec. 13 performance, visit How to Ignore an Atomic Bomb published Dec. 14 on Superconductor.

New "atomic age" staging co-produced with ENO.
Damned sexy: Jonas Kaufmann as Faust. 
Photo by Nick Heavican © 2011 
The Metropolitan Opera.

After a traditional (but disastrous) 2005 production of Gounod's Faust (by Andrei Serban) the Met has gone high concept.

This staging by Dez McAnuff (Jersey Boys) moves Gounod's 19th century classic about a scholar who sells his soul (in order to meet women) to the 20th. This is Faust set in a high-tech lab where atomic experimentation is afoot. Mr. McAnuff's staging is a co-production with English National Opera, who premiered it in 2010.

Faust will be sung by Jonas Kaufmann, the German tenor whose star has been on the rise at the Met, thanks to a 2010 appearance as Cavaradossi in Tosca and as Siegmund, the best performance in the company's troubled new staging of Die Walküre.

Méphistophélès will be sung by Rene Pape, the handsome German bass. Mr. Pape has the right voice for this part, capable of velvet singing and dark evil required to play the incarnation of evil. In fact, he was the best thing about the 2005 production. And since this is a new staging, he won't have to wear costumes like this one.

Soon after the season was announced, Angela Gheorghiu abruptly cancelled her appearances as Marguerite. The tempestuous Romanian diva cited "creative differences" with the production. (We suspect that she thought she was appearing in the Serban staging when she signed the papers.) However, the role will be sung by soprano Marina Popvlaskaya, who rose to prominence with last season's performances in Don Carlo and La Traviata.

Recording Recommendations:
Faust was the most popular opera in the world at the start of the 20th century, and has been recorded frequently. The rash of (crappy) all-star Faust recordings (featuring big names like Sutherland, Domingo, Te Kanawa, etc.) that appeared in the '70s, '80s and '90s can be safely dismissed, in favor of....

Orchestre Et Choeur Du Théatre National De l'Opéra De Paris cond. Andre Cluytens (EMI, 1959)
Faust: Nicolai Gedda
Méphistophélès: Boris Christoff
Marguerite: Victoria de los Angeles

This is a stereo remake of a mono recording from five years before with the same cast. It remains the best recording of the opera available. Nicolai Gedda is brilliant as Faust. The Swedish tenor sounds at home in French repertory. De Los Angeles (a famous Carmen) is a velvety Marguerite. The Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff tends to snarl and bark through the role of Old Scratch, but he makes up for it with a spectacularly sinister presence. At an attractive mid-price, this is only Faust to own. Yes. I sound like the Penguin Guide. But it's really good.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats