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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - 12:42 PM

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.

 

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Comments [10]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

FAUST is one opera that many have seen in performance or heard on radio, records or TV. GREAT MASTERPIECES live on. But, let's not tempt fate. Stage directors tend to vaunt "NEW" concepts as the instant fix to their own notoriety, FAME and increased fees, greater numbers of invitations to do their "thing' from other companies, Broadway or opera. IT IS NOT A MATTER OF OLDTIMERS' CONSERVATISM ON STAGING BUT WHAT THE COMPOSER'S INTENTIONS WERE. Composers, I am one, nuance their music to the text and the overall plot and characterizations. The stage picture MUST NOT BE IN BATTLE MODE WITH THE MUSICAL COMPOSITION !!! HAPPY HANNUKAH, MERRY XMAS AND HAPPY NERW YEAR !!! HANDEL'S ORATORIOS ARE THE MOST REVERED OF HIS COMPOSITIONS. ONE THAT IS NOT AS OFTEN PERFORMED AS IT DESERVES TO BE IS HIS "JUDAS MACCABAEUS." ITS "SOUND AN ALARM"' IS STIRRING. IT'S MY CLOSING SELECTION ON MY SOLO DEBUT IN THE ISAAC STERN AUDITORIUM OF CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT "{LIVE" ON MY VALHALLA RECORDS CD AND MAY BE DOWNLOADED FROM MY THREE WEBSITES. My cousin MICHAEL BLANKFORT wrote both the books and screenplays for the 1953 film THE JUGGLER Hollywood film made in Israel starring KIRK DOUGLAS and the 1950 Hollywood film BROKEN ARROW starring JAMES STEWART and JEFF CHANDLER [Cochise]. The music for THE JUGGLER was composed by opera composer GEORGE ANTHEIL, in whose opera VOLPONE I sang the tenor leading role [Mosca] in its professional world premiere in NEW YORK in 1953. ANTHEIL, famous for his opera TRANSATLANTIC and BALLET MECHANIQUE looked exactly like Peter Lorre. I am a romantischer heldentenor. I have sung four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. As part of my Ten Language Solo Debut concert at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, I opened my three hour concert with the Invocazione di Orfeo from Jacopo Peri's opera EURIDICE composed in 1600, the first opera, composed in the same year as Shakespeare wrote HAMLET. It can be heard from the live performance on my three websites, www.WagnerOpera.com, , www.ShakespeareOpera.com, and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com. It received rave critical notices in newspapers and magazines. My voice teachers were the legendary MET OPERA singers Alexander Kipnis, Friedrich Schorr, Martial Singher, John Brownlee, Karin Branzell and Margarete Matzenauer. In another commentary on wqxr.org one commented about all operas that were once NEW but now not new and therefore should be relegated to museum status. As an opera composer myself ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] I fully comprehend the assumed urgency of recognition of the still living. However, it's important to revere and enjoy the MASTERPIECES of art, music, literature, architecture and science in its multiple formats . I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ where I train actors in all the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers in all the Wagner opera roles.

Dec. 09 2012 11:14 AM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

We saw the new "Faust" last night, and I should say right away that my wife liked the look of the production, especially the lighting, and while she liked the mysterious puppet giant in the Act II scene in the square, I couldn't quite figure out why it was there. Even less comprehensible was the walk on puppet at the end: Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come?
while this is billed (hyped??) as a contemporary take on the story, the nuclear bomb physicist trope is basically tacked on as a set of bookends, and (try as they might to make the idea [whatever it is] relevant by putting the lab-coated crowd in their 3-D movie sunglasses on stage at every possible opportunity, the music and the force of the performances bring us into the "16th Century through a 19th Century lens' story of Faust and Gretchen, love and selfishness, redemption and salvation, which takes place before us without any tangible relevance brought to it by the kitschy bill of goods trappings that Mr. Gelb bought.
Also, a problem with these silly concepts is that they usually disregard the words being sung. Thus, here, we have a duel with the usual 16th century rapiers that most 20th century army guys (like Valentin) happen to have around the house because of the strong tradition of duelling (what about those lines about "giving satisfaction", as translated int he titles)? This was not a big thing around World War II days, as far as I have heard.
Anyway, the singing was great, the set, when empty of lab assistants, was unobtrusive and did not war with the performers or the story, but boy, was the concept irrelevant (despite its price tag).

Dec. 14 2011 10:48 AM
af from long island

In her interview on WQXR Angela Gheorghiu says that she pulled out of this Faust production because of the updating, and I salute her for that!

Dec. 10 2011 08:22 PM
william pagenkopf from flushing, ny

Like a politician Mr. Gelb and cohorts go for the quick fix, ie: short term profit but not lasting. Supporters pf the Met will not stay with eratic productions for quick but destructive staging and updating.
No respect for composer evidently who puts his effort in authenticity and emotions and not to make a quick buck to enhance his socalled leadership.

Dec. 09 2011 03:13 PM

Oh, Dear! I have been a Met subscriber for over 20 years but am questioning whether these productions are worth the time, effort and expense of commuting to attend. This Faust looks like yet another production that will leave me cold! I might as well stay home and listen to the live broadcasts. Perhaps next year I just may. I simply HATE the direction that the Met is moving in under the helm of Mr. Gelb.

Dec. 08 2011 11:49 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

This concept production of Faust doesn't even get the most basic aspects of the plot right. In the source score, as we meet Faust, he's so weary of life he'll sell his immortal soul to Mephistopheles for the emphemeral pleasure of being young once again here on earth. But, according to this production, all events in the opera are Faust's life flashing before his eyes just prior to his suicide. How could Faust possibly be seeing his interactions with Mephistopheles as flashbacks of the life he has already lived, if in the source score he doesn't meet Mephistopheles until he is unbearably weary of life? The score does *not* have Faust seeing his life in flashback. It has him regaining youth and living it forward differently than he lived it when first he was young.

Dec. 02 2011 12:34 AM
jfranco from ny

yes.. it's time Mr. Gelb... gets somebody to be the other 1/2 of what is needed in production at the MET.. we are talking THE MET and NOT BROADWAY... big difference.. YES.. he needs to put his imprint on new productions etc.. but to be too avant-garde.. won't do the job.. and instead of getting "new public" he may lose "a lot of the Old public"... PLEASE Mr. Gelb.. you've done a great job with innovative programs like HD Live, etc. etc.. but don't drage the operas in "modern times with modern garbs" etc.. there's a middle ground... thanks..

Dec. 01 2011 04:13 PM
David from Flushing

You might consider a topic of what operas one would like to see relocated in time and space, both serious and otherwise.

Aida set in WWII NYC with a Hudson scene, A Magic Flute in Central Park with the prince being chased by a Kermit the Frog balloon and rescued by three ladies of the night.

Dec. 01 2011 10:29 AM
misha from new paltz, ny

Mr. Tommasini is absolutely right about Mr. P. (with whom I have been unhappy since day ONE, viz Butterfly on Times Square!) In his dealer-wheeler approach, he will take anything "dazzling", no matter how irrelevant (I suppose he must have felt that he has to have ANOTHER use for those dark "glasses" from Dr. Atomic! -- he can be thrifty, when it comes down to it!) The British are a bit more forgiving than we are, but Gelb should be by now attuned to our pragmatism, and requirement for logic, although we love to be taken by abstraction and lyricism.

Dec. 01 2011 07:35 AM
michael from usa/ohio

am wondering what the reaction was when this production premiered with the ENO? gelb obviously (one would think) witnessed this production - if he was unhappy with it, would he have been able to tweak it a bit or cancel its met's appearance altogether?

Dec. 01 2011 01:21 AM

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