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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Opera Review: How to Ignore an Atomic Bomb

The Met's nuclear Faust avoids a meltdown.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marina Poplavskaya, René Pape and Jonas Kaufmann in Dez MacAnuff's re-imagined Faust.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera's new staging of Faust shouldn't work.

The production, by director Dez McAnuff, updates the opera to an underground atomic research bunker, sometime before the end of World War II. The staging is in modern dress, and key plot points are somewhat altered. And like many Met stagings in the Peter Gelb era, it's "co-produced" with another house--in this case the English National Opera. But the result does work--and is the most satisfying Faust to be delivered at the Met in several decades.

Faust may not be the most popular opera in the world (as it was in 1900) but it's crucial to the history of the Met. It was sung (in Italian) at the first opening night in 1883. Since then it has held the stage with an entertaining mix of hooky choruses, potent tunes and a thoroughly Christian redemption for the heaven-bound diva. But for Faust to fly, a production must penetrate the heart of the drama, the story of a human soul searching for its place between Heaven and Hell.

The leading men in this cast are Germans: the tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and star bass René Pape as Méphistophélès. Decked out in dapper, matching suits, doctor and devil become psychological mirror images of each other, accelerating Faust's moral tailspin while finding shortcuts on his highway to hell.

At the December 13 performance, Mr. Kaufmann sang with ringing, potent tone, bringing out the introspection of the opening scene and the desperation of the last act. He was at his best in the duel scene when he kills Valentin, a moment that can fall flat with a lesser singer. At the opera's close, Faust's fate was made less ambiguous. This wa a director's change, but one that made dramatic sense.

Mr. Pape was the big hit of the night. Free of bulky costumes and props, he played Old Scratch as part pimp, part conjurer leading Faust (literally) down the garden path. His Song of the Golden Calf was the most exciting moment of the early acts, thanks to his sexual magnetism and the choristers dancing and jerking like marionettes. He was suave and sinister in the later acts, although the staging's decision to confine both protagonists to the steel walkways and spiral staircases sometimes marginalized the leading men.

The fellas were matched by Marina Poplavskaya, a late substitute for Angela Gheorghiu. As Marguerite, her entrance in Act III saved the night from becoming dull. She was lucid in the Song of the King of Thule and fiery in the Jewel Song, compensating for her somewhat unidiomatic French with a committed stage presence. She drew on mysterious inner resources for the Act IV church scene, which ended with Marguerite drowning her infant in the baptismal font. And the final redemption was clear, simple and movingly played.

The only weak link in the cast was Russell Braun as Valentin, Marguerite's protective brother. "Avant de quitter ces lieux" was pretty enough, but lacked power against the orchestra and was performed with a wide vibrato. Mr. Braun was better in the Act IV trio and duel which begs the question: why does all the good stuff in this opera happen in the fourth act? Positive mention must also be made of mezzo Michéle Losier in the trouser role of Siebel and Met veteran Wendy White in the small role of Marthe.

Although the Act I prelude dragged, Yannick Nézet-Séguin's deft touch kept Gounod's score flowing smoothly. Big moments like the Soldier's Chorus were played and sung with enthusiasm, as the Met Chorus does when it's time to ring out a really big tune. Mr. Nézet-Séguin also knows how to let his singers ride a vocal line to its logical end. He was helped by the decision to open many of the standard cuts (including the Act V Walpurgisnacht ballet) which has the effect of balancing the opera and making the story more coherent.

At some point while watching this production you forget about its message. You suspend disbelief, ignoring the huge floating heads, suspended atomic bombs (borrowed from John Adams?) back projections, giant onstage puppets (possibly on loan from British metal band Iron Maiden) and all the ricketa-racketa of Mr. McAnuff's busy staging. For a few glorious hours, you're just watching...Faust, involved in its universal drama and recognizing the breadth of Goethe's philosophical vision. In any mounting of this opera, that is the rarest thing of all.

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