19th century grand opera is potentially the most emotionally involving of all the performing arts. And yet the trend for directors in the last few decades has been to cerebralize these works, as if the soaring melodies and lush orchestrations constituted a kind of Rosetta Stone they must decipher.
For a star-studded -- Jonas Kaufman, Marina Poplovskaya and Rene Pape -- new production of Charles Gounod's Faust, Met managing director Peter Gelb continues his habit of bringing directors from the contemporary theater. In this case it's Des MacAnuff. For many years I have maintained that a production MacAnuff did of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, with Jon Vickery as Hal, Mandy Patinkin as Hotspur and the late Kenneth McMillan as Fastaff, is one of the few truly professional productions I have ever seen in Central Park.
MacAnuff, of course, is somewhat better known for having directed Jersey Boys, a musical I have seen several times with great pleasure.
Gounod's tune-filled, sometimes extremely moving opera. was enormously popular in the late 19th century -- especially at the Met, which was jokingly referred to as the Faustspielhaus. It was regarded with some suspicion by the Germans, who called it after its heroine, "Margarethe," to distinguish it from the epic poem by their great poet Goethe.
MacAnuff has set his Faust in a 20th century scientific laboratory. This choice is not without justification. The opera does begin in Faust's lab, but in the original the aging professor's science is the mystical alchemy of the Middle Ages. Having the scenic framework as a modern laboratory immediately gives the production a cold, antiseptic quality.
The set itself, by designer Robert Brill, consists mainly of two rectilinear staircases on either side of the proscenium that wind their way to the top. At one point the peasant house of Marguerite is set within this framework -- instead of the traditional cottage the exterior of the house has three charmless floors, simply to fill the space available.
Continuing his laboratory image, the chorus at the beginning and end of the opera all wear white lab coats. At the end, of course, they are supposed to be angels. So I guess white coats are appropriate, but again they're less evocative than gowns, or, say, wings.
If there is any justification for this 20th century imagery it is a passage ithe text MacAnuff has focused on about a grand explosion -- which in this context he takes to refer to a series of events that took place in Japan about 66 years ago.
When not dressed as lab technicians, the Met chorus -- who sing powerfully and with gusto all evening long -- sometimes come in as peasants, which is what they're supposed to be. But this doesn't really gel with the overall setting. Nor does Marguerite's spinning wheel.
Apart from all this conceptualizing the staging itself is rather static. The spareness of the set contributes to this feeling of inertness. (Faust is an opera that generally stimulates the imagination -- decades ago the Met had a production by the great French director/actor Jean-Louis Barrault, in which Mephistopheles manifested himself out of a huge shadow Faust cast on a wonderfully old-fashioned red curtain.)
Despite the largely vapid visuals it is a great evening because of the stars. Tenor Jonas Kaufman is an ideal Faust. When he sings "Salut, demeure chaste et pure" in a hauntingly quiet voice, it projects the essentially noble soul of the hero quite sublimely. His voice is pure gold, and few tenors show s much total emotional control as he does.
Bass Rene Pape is of course enormously charming as the devil. Who wouldn't be taken in by such a deep, rich voice and such suave singing? Marina Poplovskaya is marvelous as Marguerite. When she did Violetta last year her range did not seem entirely up to the role and some important coloratura passages were omitted. Here she sings the Jewel Song with great assurance and joy. She is also very touching in the quieter moments. Her voice blends beautifully with Kaufman's in the ensembles.
Jonathan Beyer and Russell Braun both sing with soldierly force, and Wendy White is beautiful as Maguerite's loyal friend. Michele Losier, as Cybele, sang the hit tune, "Faites-lui mes aveux," beguilingly -- I hope we hear her soon as Cherubino.
Conductor Yannik Nexet-Seguin approaches the score with commendable seriousness, but he also knows how to exploit its many colors.
Only six years ago, the Met introduced a production of Faust by the insufferable Andrei Serban -- I can only suppose its infelicity prompted a new one relatively soon. This is a less irritating production than Serban's but hardly a satisfying one. Given the Met's precarious financial condition,maybe next time they could bring back the Barrault.