December 12th, 2011

The Met in HD: "Faust"

On Saturday the 10th, we went to see the HD simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of "Faust," by Charles Gounod.

The new production, by Des McAnuff, is brought into the 20th Century, and begins at the end of the Second World War. The setting is a laboratory belonging to Faust (Jonas Kaufmann), who is an atomic scientist. The grim image of the skeletonized Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall looms over him, representing his depression and disillusion with his life. Burned, calcined specters haunt him. He is about to take poison when Mephistopheles (Rene Pape) appears to him and offers to purchase his soul in return for wealth, power, or glory. Faust instead bargains for a return to the careless passion of youth, and, lured on by a vision of Marguerite conjured up by Mephistopheles, signs the bargain.

Regaining Faust's youth evidently involves traveling back in time, as the soldiers going off to war are wearing World War I uniforms, matched by the period dress of the women. After Mephistopheles disrupts the levity in the tavern, Faust meets Marguerite (Marina Poplavskaya) in the flesh, although she initially rebuffs his advances.

In the third scene, aided by Mephistopheles, who conjures gifts (the jewel box) and a magical garden, Faust succeeds in winning Marguerite.

By the fourth scene, Faust is long gone, and Marguerite is alone, pregnant, and shunned. Miserable, she goes to church to pray, but is haunted by Mephistopheles who summons voices to tell her she is damnned beyond redemption. In this production, she is fleeing from the church when she gives birth, and then drowns the newborn child in the baptismal font.

In the last scene, Mephistopheles tries to distract Faust with the grotesque orgy of Walpurgisnacht, but Faust is still obsessed with Marguerite, and commands Mephistopheles to bring him to her. Mephistopheles gives Faust the key to free her from the condemned cell, but she cannot be persuaded to come with him, and cowers away from the remembered voice of the devil. With dawn approaching, Mephistopheles carries Faust away, while angels sing that Marguerite is saved, and the steps to the scaffold become a stairway of light that she mounts to heaven.

Back in his laboratory, the aged Faust drinks the poison and dies. Perhaps there was no Mephistopheles at all?

All of the principals sang wonderfully, including Michele Losier as Siebel, and Russel Braun as Valentin. Jonas Kaufmann was a good Faust but his acting was somewhat overshadowed by the others, and although his duets with Poplavskaya were beautiful, there was some lacking of spark between them. Rene Pape was excellent, being by turns a sinister, sensual, or seductive tempter. Ms. Poplavskaya's remarkably square face keeps her from being really beautiful, but that doesn't really matter since her voice is gorgeous, and she can really act. In the fourth scene, she projects such misery she's hard to watch. The "jewel song" from the third act was done with as great loveliness as I have ever heard, and she can portray being enchanted, or being transported, with great ability.

The cast made good use of the set, which, besides the projection screens, consisted of sets of stairs and platforms, and pieces that had multiple uses such as lab benches that became inn tables, etc. The "atomic" theme faded out during most of the middle of the show, but resurfaced with the "Little Boy" atom bomb appearing as centerpiece of the Walpurgis banquet. Mephistopheles' cane, headed with an atomic model, was one of the niftiest props and helped him perform some actual prestidigitation on stage.

The new production was not universally popular: although the singers and conductor Yannick Nezet-Sequin received rapturous applause from the Met audience, there were some audible "boos" when director McAnuff took his bow. We thought the presentation worked well enough, and raised some interesting questions.

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