In recent seasons, Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb has
reached out to world-class directors to infuse the classic repertory with
more theatrical pizzazz. Results have ranged from a minimalist La Traviata
to a metatheatrical Sonnambula. Now comes Des McAnuff’s atomic-age
interpretation of Gounod’s Faust. For Met traditionalists, it might seem
like Gelb has made a pact with the devil.
This Faust is no longer an aged German philosopher who longs for youth
and nubile mistresses: He’s a nuclear physicist circa 1945, suicidally
depressed over his role in creating the A-bomb. Faust makes a bargain with
Mephistopheles to regain his youth and innocence. He’s whisked back to 1914,
to the outbreak of World War I, where he falls in love with pure and angelic
Marguerite. Seduction, betrayal and damnation follow, all shadowed by
mushroom cloud video projections, laboratory equipment, and a chorus in
sterile white lab coats. This 20th-century frame is often evocative; other
times it’s mere window dressing. However, the singers are always phenomenal,
under the vigorous conducting of maestro Yannick Nézet-Seguin. Jonas
Kaufmann has leading-man looks and a rich, baritonal tenor; soprano Marina
Poplavskaya makes for a dreamy, tragic Marguerite; and Rene Pape steals his
scenes as that satanic charmer, Mephistopheles.
1859 score is glorious, even if the French-Romanticized libretto is too
sentimental and melodramatic for my taste. So let’s give McAnuff credit for
trying to dress Faust with gravitas and modern-day relevance. This
high-concept, atomic Faust offers a few explosions-none of them too great to
damage the classic.