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The Metropolitan Opera
Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite in a scene from Act II of the Met's new Faust
© Beth Bergman 2012
Pape and Kaufmann, above, Méphistophélès and Faust at the Met
© Beth Bergman 2012
Kaufmann and Poplavskaya in Faust at the Met
© Beth Bergman 2012
The Metropolitan Opera has entrusted its latest staging of Gounod's Faust (a coproduction with English National Opera) to Des McAnuff, a director accustomed to dusting off and shaking up redoubtable theater classics. As a practiced Shakespearean, McAnuff has dealt with works even more familiar to audiences than Gounod's warhorse, with its Met track record of 700-plus performances since 1883, when the opera opened the company's first home at Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street.
The McAnuff production, first seen at ENO in September 2010 and introduced to the Met on November 29, is contrarian yet predictable. It seems determined to defy audience expectations, to force attention without interpretive payoff. Each gesture seems to contradict the previous one; the opera is updated, backdated and undated. The soldiers, costumed by Paul Tazewell, appear to be fighting World War I, while the opera's churchgoers and angel chorus wear white coats that suggest a pharmaceutical TV commercial. Robert Brill's skeletal, monochrome metallic sets have the barren utility of a lab or warehouse — or, increasingly, of standard opera decors.
Many touches have an improvised quality, as if McAnuff were playing with and discarding styles, mixing realism and magic, Dark Age demons and New Age scientists, neon lights and exploding, romantic red roses. The juxtaposition of science and superstition, in the lab setting that frames the action, could be implicit satire. But without cumulative impact or any sense of a unifying vision, the experiments remain decorative; the framing device offers nothing but a hint of novelty — unfulfilled — and a formal symmetry that is merely tidy.
But then there is Marguerite. The production may have the brain of a clever student, but at heart it is sentiment tinged with realism. With the heroine, all irony stops, though McAnuff indulges in certain exaggerations. She is shown obviously, enormously pregnant in Act IV, in a note of realism new to Gounod's opera here, and her brother's outrage and death are played straight. With the predictability of a Brechtian stage poster and all the subtlety of a North Korean military parade, McAnuff mounts huge projections of the face of Marina Poplavskaya, who plays Marguerite. Projected on the curtain at intermission, the face proves, almost eerily, to be a video, not a still projection; the eyes shift — as if hinting at depths that remain unexplored.
The surprise is how firmly and without apparent effort Poplavskaya maintains focus on her character. The soprano, whose default stage demeanor is a poised serenity, forms an immobile center surrounded by a swirl of secondary activity. The ultimate impact, dramatically, is to consign the hero to satellite status (an effect abetted by tenor Jonas Kaufmann's muted performance) and to reduce the opera to its human, sentimental love story.
What makes this Faust distinctive, however, is musical — the idiosyncratic approach that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his cast have taken to the score. At the most extreme moments, audience members had to lean forward to catch Faust's ardent, muffled phrases — owing partly to Kaufmann's raspy vocal condition before he warmed up. It became apparent soon enough that the whisper campaign was deliberate. Kaufmann used degrees of piano and exaggerated rubato to convey a sense of wonder, suggesting a rejuvenated Faust who can hardly believe his delight and his luck; in so doing, he invited fresh attention to lines often taken for granted, such as the abrupt "Je t'aime" after the first encounter with Marguerite, which was almost frozen in time.
Nézet-Séguin's conducting favored long, cohesive lines and, especially, transparent textures. Instrumental detail has rarely been so clear and savory in these old standards — the gently wafted violin solo in "Salut! demeure chaste et pure," the percolating woodwinds so individualized in each stanza of Méphistophélès's serenade. The orchestra never challenged the singers; the conductor's focus on clarity gave duets a conversational quality.
Like Kaufmann at key moments, but without affectation, the Méphistophélès, a superbly dapper René Pape, made even secondary lines count. Pape's delivery of the quick aside to Faust about Marguerite in her new finery ("as you can see, the jewels received a warm welcome") turned the tricky twelve-note phrase into a lightning-quick parenthesis in a stage whisper as suave as his Fred Astaire gestures. His solo arias had an intriguing variety.
Both Pape and Kaufmann complemented their refinement with robust delivery of big high notes, although Kaufmann was more parsimonious, as if on a vocal budget, even at the somewhat rushed peak moment in his aria.
Poplavskaya's singing also lacked balance. She was clearly more comfortable at low volume in the lyrical passages, where she produced an intimate glow that suited the undulating lines, and she managed the delicate tracery of the jewel song, including the extended trills, with skill. Loud high notes, on the other hand, were attacked with a raw edge.
Russell Braun, as the idealistic, hotheaded Valentin, was strained in big phrases, sounding miscast in the famous cavatina and the "C'est une croix" ensemble. Michèle Losier acted an appropriately puppyish Siébel, singing with a full, ruddy tone that lacked something in finesse at quieter moments.
Directors like to downsize and disperse the processions and mass rallies that figure strongly, or once did, in grand opera. In McAnuff's intensely personal focus, he keeps the chorus peripheral; they are sometimes looking on from the sides, often heard but unseen. Unfortunately, though, the cramped upstage placement of the choristers caused a certain loss of volume in the Act III soldier's chorus and a damping of the music's intended impact.
The stripped-down final prison scene does the opposite; it modestly makes way for Gounod. Rather than frustration, the minimalist presentation brings a certain relief. Marguerite's prayers are not accompanied by any bursts of light or religious iconography. The final blocking is symmetrical, bare-bones geometry; Satan and his prey descend through a trapdoor, and the heroine climbs, and keeps climbing, a long flight of stairs in a void, a lone figure, obeying only the music.
DAVID J. BAKER
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