Audiophile Audition, October 8, 2014
Steven Ritter
The concept is good, but the visuals don’t make it easy to watch.
Faust could once make the claim of being the most popular opera in the world. But that was then, this is now, and it just ain’t so no more. Even in its day it had a lot of critics, mostly those of Germanic stripe who hated the idea of a French composer making such a frothy musical mixture of the revered Goethe’s greatest work. In my view opera picks up where words leave off, and Gounod offers significant advantages over the written text, as all great operas do, enabling us to probe the depths of feelings and emotions only implicit in the very interpretable prose of the finest of authors.

Yet Faust failed over time; even though the Metropolitan Opera opened with Faust in its new house in 1883, at that time the opera was in its last throes. In the twentieth century the work became somewhat passé, probably because the Romantic quagmire that gave birth to it became increasingly difficult in the industrial age to put on stage without inspiring incredulity or laughter. Musically it is still a marvelous piece, one of the most lyrical and blazingly tuneful works ever composed, rife with dramatic possibilities just waiting for the right director—of which there have been very few willing to try it—to give it wings.

This production, another Met Live special broadcast worldwide, is definitely not the one to resurrect the work. The Met is not entirely at fault as the production is also from the English National Opera. What we have is Faust as a tormented Oppenheimer character ready to kill himself because of his conflicts over launching us all into the nuclear age, saved by the suave and urbane Mephistopheles by placing the anti-hero back into his youth, and the arms of Marguerite. Because of this we are immersed in a set that consists essentially of a bare-boned laboratory of utmost banality and depression, utterly devoid of any kind of romantic passion, color, and eccentricity. The concept in and of itself is really not a bad one; the opera does need some kind of updating to make it more applicable to the world we live in, otherwise it can degenerate into a simple fairy tale. But these sets, though technologically sophisticated, are brutal, ugly, monochromatic, and simply offensive to the eyes and at complete incongruence with Gounod’s effervescent score.

If you close your eyes however, you may experience a little of what such an all-star cast is able to provide. While many have criticized Kaufmann’s neo-French diction, they might be reminded that this is music and not a French lesson, and there is simply no more versatile tenor performing before the public today. His emotive preferences add light to the production, his acting first-rate. Pape’s Mephistopheles, as you might expect, is supremely domineering even though it is done with a sort of nightclub-bouncer strong-arming of a man used to getting his way—he is the devil, after all. The acting of Marina Poplavskaya is superb on all accounts; I just wish she would bring more of that passion into her singing, which though generally fine lacks the last degree of warmth. What comes out of her mouth doesn’t always match the expression on her face. I don’t want to be too hard on her though, and the role is a bear—even though it fits the voice quite nicely—and this one is certainly worthy.

If this was an SACD I would most likely add a star to the total in the heading (although the lossless DTS soundtrack is fine); but it’s not, and the staging is such that the prospect of returning to it is not a pleasant one. Director Des McAnuff needs to rethink the visuals behind the otherwise interesting concept.

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