Opera.uk, February 2012
Martin Bernheimer
Gounod: Faust, Metropolitan Opera New York, ab 29. November 2011
Faust, New York
They keep trying to reinvent the wheel at the METROPOLITAN OPERA. Much fuss is mustered these days because Peter Gelb dares entrust new productions to directors from the socalled legitimate theatre and other show-business realms. Actually, the trend, if it can be called that, began back in 1950 when Rudolf Bing inaugurated his revolutionary regime with a Don Carlos staged by the Shakespeare expert Margaret Webster. Although some subsequent excursions proved more successful than others, a notable high point was reached in 1953 when Peter Brook scrubbed the cobwebs of tradition from Faust.

Gounod's essentially Gallic, romantically sweetened, naively superficial yet deliriously pretty revision of Goethe's Germanic tragedy was later assigned to such outsiders as JeanLouis Barrault (1965) and Harold Prince (1990). In 2005, the Faustspielhaus in Fun City hosted a rather cheeky production by Andrei Serban. Gelb apparently disliked it, however, and withdrew it after only 16 performances. Economy be damned.

On November 29 Gelb imported the controversial staging created by Des McAnuff for the ENO. Enlarged and recast at Lincoln Center, it managed to rankle conservatives and disappoint progressives at the same time. The director, celebrated for Jersey Boys on Broadway and Shakespeare in Canada, tried desperately to make Faust relevant-now there's a dirty word-historically, sociologically and politically. He banished storybook kitsch, kept the stage dark and stark. He moved the action to the mid 20th century (back and forth between wars), and superimposed an irrelevant subplot about the invention of the atom bomb in Los Alamos. Here Faust the philosopher becomes a laboratory scientist. Robert Brill's basic set, embellished with video imagery, is a steel grid flanked by dizzying spiral staircases. The narrative, meticulously planned and neatly executed, emerges tough, grim and hyper-intellectual. Gounod's opera, unfortunately, is none of these things. It is just a hum-along love story.

The Met argued sound better than sight. Jonas Kaufmann enacted the protagonist's plight sensitively, shading the line with heroic ardour and exquisite finesse, as needed. He sculpted long pianissimo phrases that took our breath away, if not his. In the circumstances, one actually expected a diminuendo on the top C of 'Salut, demeure', a feat managed by such past paragons as Giuseppe Sabbatini, Alain Vanzo and Giuseppe di Stefano. That turned out to be wishful expecting. Maybe next time.

Marina Poplavskaya, an early replacement for the temperamental Angela Gheorghiu (who proclaimed the production `a fiasco' in a radio interview), played the emphatically modern Marguerite with stoic pathos. Essentially a daring singing-actress rather than a disciplined vocal technician, the Russian soprano gave all she had. Sometimes it was enough. René Pape sang lustily as a jolly, debonair Mephistopheles. He even managed a nifty soft-shoe routine during his mock-serenade. Still, a bit more sardonic danger would have been useful. Russell Braun found Valentin's dramatic outbursts more congenial than his lyrical reflections. Michele Losier brought gutsy enthusiasm to Siebel's Hosenrolle platitudes, and Wendy White simpered deftly as Dame Marthe Schwerlein.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the muchapplauded conductor, dared restore some passages often cut (including the Walpurgisnacht episode, here mimed rather than danced). He also managed to enforce unusually broad tempos without compromising sentimental nuances. He gave his singers steady


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