A Muddled, if Musical, Vision for Met's New Faust

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This past Sunday, New York Times chief critic Anthony Tommasini evaluated the last five years at the Met under Peter Gelb’s direction, taking him to task for his assumption of responsibility for new productions. Tommasini deemed the results “frustratingly mixed” and called for a director of productions to spearhead artistic decisions in tandem with Gelb’s business acumen.

In the spirit of yesterday’s newest of new Met productions, I’d like to call on some unearthly power—God, the Devil or Cthulhu—to see that this happens. And, also in keeping with last night’s directorial vision, perhaps we can make it retroactive in order to apply to several productions over the last half-decade.

Broadway director Des McAnuff is the very model of a modern major theater director, having a mantle full of Tony, Olivier and Dora awards and being at the helm of Canada’s prestigious Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He has directed everything from Macbeth to Jersey Boys, and dabbled with Berg’s Wozzeck prior to crafting a new Faust for the English National Opera, a production that landed at Lincoln Center last night. The premise was promising, if not a bit derived from John Adams’s recent Faust–inspired work Doctor Atomic: In his eternal quest for knowledge, Faust has a hand in creating the A-Bomb, and in his deal with Mephistopheles, he travels back in time from World War II to the comparatively dreamier landscape circa World War I.

But the seemingly straightforward concept comes out impossibly disoriented. McAnuff is in desperate need of an editor for his numerous ideas, many good yet choked by extraneous superfluity. If you did no reading beforehand of the director’s much-touted conceit, the time travel would be unclear, almost negligible.

For instance, McAnuff appears to imply that it is in the Witches’ Sabbath where Faust first discovers the secret to nuclear warfare and it is then put to use some thirty-odd years later. Whether or not this is an accurate read is irrelevant as he gives us no concrete reasoning either way. Nor does he solidify the idea that the whole of this five-act French grand opera is the split-second dying dream of an old man as he sips his poison.

If that’s what you think, go for it, but God (or the Devil, or Cthulhu) help you if you don’t spend the ensuing three hours and 40 minutes making the case for that point. Why, for instance, is the chorus clad in white lab coats for most of the past-set scenes? Why are there not one but two unexplained life-size puppets onstage at various turns? And why, in a production of abstracts, do we not only have to hear a baby cry in Marguerite’s arms but also see her drown the infant in an OSHA-grade lab sink?

McAnuff has sparks of brilliance with the individual actors in his cast—a camera flash goes off during the chorus of returning soldiers, triggering a PTSD spasm in one trench warfare survivor—and keeps the production moving, but it never reaches a final destination. On the flip side, however, young maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin worked from the pit to craft a complete and completely luscious read of Gounod’s floridly melodic score.

In a solid ensemble cast, bass René Pape led the pack with a Méphistophélès that was at turns suavely debonair and terrifyingly violent, accentuating the ironies in Gounod’s score and Jules Barbier and Michel Carré’s libretto and serving as a maniacal master of ceremonies for the piece. (Kelly Devine’s choreography for his battle hymn of the one percent, “Le veau d’or,” was divinely creepy while owing much to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.) He’s not necessarily evil, he just sings that way. Pape’s interactions with Faust, in McAnuff’s world as a sort of malicious twin to the conscience-addled philosopher, yield some meaty acting for both singers. Kaufmann, effortlessly inhibiting the tortured German romanticism behind the French role, also breaks off on his own and lend his dark-hued voice to a ravishing “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” and a sublime love duet with Marina Poplavskaya.

Poplavskaya is a soprano whose performances often create polarizing responses from the audience, and while she does have her share of vocal idiosyncrasies and struggles with the coloratura and precision with high notes, she was incandescently spellbinding as Marguerite. Like Sutherland, she radiates angular power from her considerable jaw, but like Callas she uninhibitedly throws herself into the pathos of a role, at times forsaking those glistening top notes for something far more interesting. There was added ardor from Russell Braun’s Valentin, who rushed his farewell aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux” but returned for a glowering death scene, and mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier, who was boyishly charming as the lovelorn Siébel.

In the end, this Faust is worth selling one’s soul for the musical performance alone. But it’s going to be a long season in hell with such a heartless and overly clinical production. The road to this Hell is paved with Des McAnuff’s good, but muddied, intentions.  

Check out the below clips of the Met's new Faust and tell us what you think in the comments below.