International Record Review, June 2014
Robert Levine
Gounod - Faust
When this Metropolitan Opera production of Gounod's Faust opened near the end of 2011, it was met with almost universal scorn, or, less critically, puzzlement. Des McAnuff was chosen by general manager Peter Gelb to direct. If one's credentials include The Who's Tommy, Jersey Boys and a film version of Rocky and Bullwinkle, is Gounod the next stop? Gelb thought so and nobody agreed with him. Revisiting this production on DVD settles it — it is a confusing mess.

McAnuff has concocted a plot filled with incomplete ideas that manages to obscure the simple action of Gounod's opera. Faust is a guilt-laden scientist who may be the mastermind behind the Atomic Bomb. The antiseptic set, by Robert Brill, opens onto a laboratory with metal spiral staircases leading to balconies on both sides of the stage. During the Prelude, a middle-aged Faust in an appealing dark topcoat strolls in, as do characters looking like refugees in tattered clothing, who cross the stage in gloomy silence. (They return in the Church Scene and Walpurgisnacht.) As Faust sings, lab workers enter robotically, Marguerite among them; she leaves slowly after Mephistopheles enters rather undemonically — save for the occasional bit of flame that pops out of his fingers — in white suit and top hat, red rose in lapel and red tie, from a door at the rear of the stage. Faust's transformation — in a cycloramic cloud, stage rear — finds him in a matching white suit and hat, only with white rose and tie. It's charming, but it is also the production's second problem (the one right after the Atom Bomb issue): McAnuff tries throughout to convince us that Mephistopheles and Faust are two sides of a coin — the coin that is Faust, a good man who has done wrong, and continues to do so. He's
involved in destroying Hiroshima, so why not Marguerite? He's almost disturbingly passive throughout, coming to life only to woo and seduce Marguerite. And the time set-up is odd: the Kermesse Scene features First World War soldiers returning (and at one point operating a 20-foot soldier puppet — huh?), so is it a flashback of Faust's? Is it supposed to represent a more innocent time? I don't recall the First World War being a walk in the park. The Walpurgisnacht features a long table with the bomb on it as a centrepiece (Faust and Mephistopheles sit at the table, drinking) and at the opera's end the bomb detonates after Marguerite has walked up a staircase and disappeared. Does she miss the explosion? Is that her salvation? Faust returns as an old man, finishes drinking the poison he pours in Act I and dies peacefully. Was it all a dream? What opera is this?

Rear-stage projections are used throughout, very effectively, the quick flash from the bomb being only one. Earlier there are stunning close-up photos of Marguerite, a whirling sky, and for the Garden Scene (still the metallic lab, shorn of its tables at least), a backdrop of exquisite red roses. Marguerite's cell, darkly lit (the metal tiers invisible) is wonderfully sad and oppressive. The mood occasionally is properly set; more often the staircases look like staircases.

A pity, all of this, since the cast is both wonderful to look at and to listen to. Not enough, actually, can be said about Jonas Kaufmann's undertaking of the title role. His voice is not what one normally hears in this repertoire — it's darker than any Faust I've ever heard — but it is brilliant at the top, his French is quite good, his phrasing masterful and sensitive, and his attention to dynamics near astounding. And the voice loses no centre in this performance when he sings pianissimo — it can often come across as crooning, but does not here. He manages a diminuendo on the high B in the phrase 'Je t'aime' near the end of the Kermesse Scene that is perfect. As mentioned, he seems to be being directed to act unreceptively — maybe because of his guilt in McAnuff's concept —but still, he's grand to listen to and to watch.

Rene Pape's Mephistopheles is well drawn. Easygoing and witty at first and nastier as the opera goes on, his voice is a true luxury item — perfectly rounded tone, bright and true at the top and rock solid everywhere else as well. He's a somewhat calculating actor, however; a bit more spontaneity would be welcomed. (I'm nitpicking.) Marina Poplayskaya remains a somewhat frustrating artist: her impersonation of Marguerite is right-on — innocent, flattered, seduced, terrified, miserable — and her treatment of the text in the final trio, 'Anges purs, anges radieux', has more intensity and sincerity than I've ever experienced. The voice can be gorgeous — plush and shimmering. But her pitch wavers at odd moments and some top notes are shrill; one rarely knows what type of sound she will emit. These tics never spoil what she's trying to accomplish but it's an oddity in her technique and artistry.

Russell Braun may not have the most luxurious baritone voice, but his Valentin is well sung, well acted and memorable. Michele Losier's boyish Siebel is full-voiced and Wendy White's Marthe is fine. Yannick Nézet-Séguin's leadership is elegant and smooth; rather than trying to find hidden meanings in Gounod's marvellously obvious tunes and harmonies, he has the orchestra play them as if they were new and masterpieces. If only designer and director had trusted the opera as much.

Picture and sound, as well as direction for small screen, are superb, and subtitles are in the usual languages and Chinese and Korean. Joyce DiDonato acts as host and interviews the main singers, conductor and director between acts.

The competition on DVD is paltry. It includes an old Japanese TV version starring Renata Scotto, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Alfredo Kraus which is magnificently sung and acted but not only looks shabby and dark but has indelible Japanese subtitles over which you can put other languages, rendering the screen messy. A 1985 Viennese performance stars Francisco Araiza, Ruggero Raimondi and Gabriela Benacková but is dementedly directed by Ken Russell, who makes every effort to sabotage the opera. David McVicar's sleazy Covent Garden production is well sung by Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Bryn Terfel. It, along with this present Met show, can be considered tied for first, but there are production caveats galore with each.

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