For years, Gounod's Faust was the mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera, to such an extent that the Met was jokingly called the Faustspielhaus, a pun based on Wagner's Festspielhaus. That prominence ended decades ago, as the opera dropped to also-ran status below the ABC trilogy of Aida, Bohème and Carmen.
Faust's return in an arresting new production makes us consider what this opera has to offer in the 21st Century. I see Faust as the prime example of French grand opera, a genre that was known for large casts, spectacle, a mixture of melodrama and humor, and a panoply of arias and ensembles juxtaposing serenades, waltzes and marches.
That genre included successful works by Meyerbeer and Halévy that have faded into obscurity, such as Robert le Diable (with its ballet of debauched nuns), Les Huguenots and Le Prophète.
Faust was a five-act grab bag of showpieces rather than philosophical enlightenment comparable to the Goethe play on which it was based. It has survived for two reasons: Gounod's infectious music, and the enduring idea that many of us would do virtually anything to recapture our youth.
It may be an unwieldy relic, but it's full of entertaining features. In that case, why not accept a tinkering with the opera's dramatic premise and a relocation of its setting to America in the 1940s?
Men I knew
The problem with this production, unfortunately, lies not in its experimental impulse but in the flimsy intellectual underpinnings of director Des McAnuff's concept. The costuming and staging seem to imply that American atomic scientists sold their souls to the devil and created a global nightmare. As I discussed in an earlier review (click here), I was friendly with many of the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. None of these men felt they were doing evil work; on the contrary, they were motivated by their desire to bring a monstrous war to its conclusion.
So calling the atomic bomb a Faustian bargain is a bit of a stretch, as McAnuff himself implicitly acknowledges. In the opening scene we see the skeletal ruins of Nagasaki, indicating that the atomic bomb already has been detonated. Later, we see several flashes of light, signifying multiple atomic blasts, hinting that the production is set in the period after the war, when a long series of explosive tests took place. At that point, J. Robert Oppenheimer and some other atomic scientists on his staff were beginning to feel anxiety over the power that they had unleashed in 1945.
McAnuff, I believe, is being deliberately ambiguous— acknowledging that ethical trade-offs occur in many situations. But he might have done better to show Hitler's atomic experts racing to build a super bomb before the Americans. Those scientists really made a deal with the devil.
Battle helmet, wedding band
McAnuff inserted appropriate directorial touches that added nuance. Two nice examples: When the soldiers return from war, one of them quietly hands Marthe the helmet of her husband who was killed in battle. In the final scene, when Faust goes to save Marguerite, he brings her a wedding band; his plan is not only to spring her from jail, but also to try and save her soul in a larger sense, by making her an honest woman.
Throughout, the director clarified action with many small gestures. He gave Méphistophélès some hand-magic tricks that looked particularly impressive in High-Def closeup.
The casting of this production was risky. The title role was assigned to Jonas Kaufmann, a German who is associated with Wagner, and Marguerite to Marina Poplavskaya, a Russian soprano known previously for her Verdi. The risk paid off: Both did outstanding jobs, almost equaling the superb René Pape, who has been the dominant Méphistophélès of our time and who here added new depth to his portrayal.
Kaufmann took long phrases without a breath, and on the phrase "Je t'aime," just before the first intermission, he hit a perfect high-B natural, then did a slow diminuendo to a ravishing pianissimo. In his Garden Scene with Marguerite, Kaufmann sang many passages with gentle covered tones— a technical term to describe voice placement, sort of like physically covering your notes with fine silk or with gossamer.
Poplavskaya, very touching, acted with her voice. She delivered some words almost parlando, and she added a haunted tone. Elsewhere, her voice was clear and blooming. Her highlights: a long-held shimmering high note at the climax of the Garden Scene; and a moody "spinning wheel" song (here updated to a sewing machine) at the start of Act IV.
Some observers might complain that Poplavskaya reactions to Faust's courting were muted, perhaps lacking chemistry, but I felt she was appropriately exhibiting Marguerite's shyness. The idea that she was a modest girl before she turned wanton is important to the plot.
The video direction by Barbara Willis Sweete featured nice shots from above and from low angles, as well as attention to small things like raised eyebrows, shrugs and hand gestures. Tricks such as flashes of fire and wilting of flowers bloomed more noticeably on screen than they could on the stage in a large hall.