Features

Dance with the Devil

DAVID COTE visits with Tony-winning director Des McAnuff, whose staging of Faust opens this month at the Met.

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The death of Valentin in McAnuff's Faust production, which had its premiere last season at ENO, with (from left) Pamela Helen Stephen (Marthe), Benedict Nelson (Valentin), Melody Moore (Marguerite) and Anna Grevelius (Siebel)
© Catherine Ashmore 2011
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© Walter McBride/Corbis 2011

When San Francisco Opera invited John Adams to create an "American Faust," no one guessed the commission would lead to Doctor Atomicwhich had its Metropolitan Opera premiere three years ago. This month will see an essential reversal of that inspirational path: you could say the Met will have two Doctor Atomics in its repertoire with the opening of director Des McAnuff's nuclear-age take on Charles Gounod's Faust. In this intellectually ambitious setting of the 1859 classic, Faust is not just a French romanticized version of the German hero/philosopher, pining for youth and nubile mistresses; this time, he's a tormented physicist retracing the steps that led him — and the world — to the brink of technological Armageddon. McAnuff chafes at labeling his Faust merely modern-dress. "When one hears updating, images of disco boots come to mind," the director says. "It's still very much a period piece, but our timeline stretches back through the twentieth century." 

The metaphorical–historical frame for McAnuff's Faust is the thirty-one years between the outbreak of World War I and the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That cataclysmic stretch of history is the ideological overlay through which he wants us to see Faust anew. The concept was road-tested last year with English National Opera. The Met version (coproduced with ENO) will feature Jonas Kaufmann in his first Met performances of the title role, Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite, Russell Braun as Valentin and René Pape as Méphistophélès. Angela Gheorghiu, originally slated to play Marguerite, withdrew from the production in March. The diva's manager cited her distaste for the conceptual context, indicating that Gheorghiu prefers the work en leromantisme français.

Part of the inspiration for this atomic Faust came from the director's friendship with Rita Bronowski, an arts patron who sat on the board of La Jolla Playhouse, which McAnuff ran from 1983 to 1994 and again from 2001 to 2007. Through her, McAnuff came to know about her late husband, Polish–Jewish scientist and author Jacob Bronowski (1908–74), who visited Japan after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (One of Bronowski's major achievements was the 1973 BBC science documentary The Ascent of Man.)

"I remember hearing that story about Jacob visiting the holocaust of Nagasaki and deciding to switch from physics to anthropology," McAnuff recalls. "He never practiced physics again." McAnuff concedes the notion isn't terribly original, but he notes, "The history of mankind underwent a seismic shift with the detonation of those two bombs. It dawned on us for the first time that we could eradicate life on the planet. That became my opening into this world." If we see Faust as a scientist who helped engineer the atom bomb, we get a new appreciation of the existential malaise that begins Act I (with the libretto's nihilistic cry, "Rien!").

Linking Faust to science and modern history could be a useful corrective. One criticism of Gounod's version has been that it underserves a great literary figure, dramatized by Marlowe, Goethe and others. Wagner reportedly derided the opera as "musique de cocottes," or "whore's music." Indeed, for all the beauty and grandeur of this quintessentially Romantic work, one is surprised by how stereotypically Gallic it is. In Marlowe, Doctor Faustus is an id-driven iconoclast and Elizabethan rebel; in Goethe, he's trapped between philosophy and bodily desire; but in Gounod, Faust is little more than a randy old goat — more Dominique Strauss-Kahn than Enlightenment hero. In that sense, McAnuff is putting science and striving for knowledge back into the legend.

"That's certainly there in the design, without question," McAnuff agrees, referring to designer Robert Brill's set of scaffolding and bombs and Paul Tazewell's lab-coated chorus members. "We're using the score to explore those ideas, too. But in our version, the desire to reclaim youth is also about reclaiming innocence, before the bomb. And that explains Faust's fascination with Marguerite."

Another key challenge for any director of Faust is how to represent Méphistophélès. In his own life, Gounod balanced an intense Catholic devotion with a love of the theater, and Faust shares that tension between piety and playacting. For Faust to have an integrated moral vision, it must address the question: Who is Méphistophélès? "In many ways, he's the mirror image of Faust," McAnuff replies. "Obviously there's religious imagery in the libretto, and good and evil are the forces at work in the story." While chary about spoiling too much of his concept for the audience, the director hints that he is taking Faust's drinking of poison in Act I as a cue for framing the action as a kind of dying vision or hallucination. "By setting the story as a dream, everything becomes more fantastical," he says. "So my Méphistophélès is not a moustache-twirling Satan. He's the manifestation of aspects of Faust and a kind of conscience — or the opposite of a conscience."

Although McAnuff would seem to have little left to prove — his 2005 hit Jersey Boys still rakes in around $1 million a week on Broadway, and he won a Tony for his sensational staging of The Who's Tommy in 1993 — Faust will be a test of the director's ability to establish a footprint in the international opera world. Not that the director is a slouch in the reimagined-classics department; for the last three years, he has been artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, staging acclaimed revivals of the Bard's Twelfth Night and The Tempest, as well as Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. (McAnuff says he plans to give up the reins at Stratford in 2013.) Given his proclivity for crowd-pleasing rock and pop musicals, McAnuff seems to have found a vibrant balance between glitzy spectacle and serious investigation of classic stories.

It's always a dance, McAnuff notes, between fidelity to the original text and the tradition of adapting that text. "Faust has been disassembled and reassembled in many different fashions over the years," he notes. "As a director, I enjoy that dramaturgical restructuring. Of course, I look to my maestros — Ed Gardner and Yannick Nézet-Séguin — for guidance in that." McAnuff will be restoring the Walpurgis Night sequence at the beginning of Act V (often omitted from Met productions). But here, rather than a satanic ritual on the Harz Mountains and a parade of classical beauties pirouetting en pointe, McAnuff stages a surreal banquet in which the main delectables are the guts of an atom bomb.

Such a specific lens comes with obvious risks, but so far the director has led a fairly charmed career. (We'll not dwell on his disastrous 2000 film The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.) Does McAnuff ever feel like he made his own pact with the Devil? "Never," he assures me with a laugh. "It's funny — this year, I've done two pieces which have everything to do with religion and Christianity, Jesus Christ Superstar [at Stratford] and Faust. I approach both in a secular way. I know that Faust has religious imagery, but it's part of a dream landscape. I approached Superstar as a secular love triangle. If you're a believer, you won't be offended by anything in it, but you can watch it as a nonbeliever and still have a powerful experience. That's true of Faust as well. It delivers on an emotional level — whether you're a believer or not." spacer 

DAVID COTE is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York and an early-career librettist and playwright. 

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Current Issue: July 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 1