Sunday, December 4, 2011

Met Opera Review: McAnuff blows up "Faust"

By David Salazar (For the 12.3.2011 Performance)

Saturday night's performance of Charles Gounod's "Faust" proved a peculiar evening for numerous reasons. Usually a night at the opera is punctuated by what is going onstage and how it seems to affect the audience. However, this time it was the other way around. For those wondering, there were no boos (though I am sure some would have loved to have done that had Des McAnuff and crew shown up for curtain calls). No, the uneasy moment that reverberated throughout the night was an unknown man's battle cry of "Occupy Wall Street" that rang throughout the hall moments before the start of Act 3. The result was a mix of boos and cheers that lasted for almost 2 minutes. Safe to say this ovation/jeering lasted longer than any ovation for any of the performers for the rest of the night. From my perspective, this moment (whether it actually had any affect on the singers or was just a coincidence) emphasized a great restlessness that permeated the evening.

Politics may very well have been the presiding theme of the evening (though not modern US politics). The production represents one of Peter Gelb's latest attempts to establish his artistic voice and standing in the world of opera. He has long stated the need to evolve the art form and bring in "real " directors to get rid of the pageantry that has long "bogged down the art form (take that for what you will)." The Met needs to compete with the rest of the art forms in New York and in the US, so it is natural that from a political standpoint, "Change that We Can Believe In" has been HIS Battlecry for the 5 years of his tenure. So this "Change" sees its latest ramification in McAnuff's political (to some degree considering its inclusion of World War 1 & 2 and the atomic bomb) "Faust."

For those not up to date, McAnuff is best known for directing the musical "Jersey Boys," which apparently validates his ability to direct opera. And I'd say that for 3 acts, this faith is fully justified. After all, the first three acts contain the stuff that musical buffs revel in: Dances, comedy, large choruses, romance, fluff. But when all that goes away and is replaced by Danger, Darkness, tragedy, heartbreak, and no comedy whatsoever, it seems that the interest was just not there. To call the final two acts of Saturday's "Faust" underwhelming and boring may be a slight understatement; the opera dragged, the material was flat, and the actors/singers who were so alive for three acts looked like they came out of those "pageantry" productions, standing around and going through the motions.

And there was something about an atomic bomb, and Faust being a middle aged man with a mid life crisis who actually DRINKS the poison and then suddenly has a flashback because he returns to that moment where he drank the poison and dies as the final curtain comes down. Confused? So was I. McAnuff mentioned a flashback sequence, but only confusion arises from this: in a flashback, someone goes back to their youth, which Faust promptly does after Mephistopheles gives him the potion. However, Faust does not immediately turn young when he drinks the poison. He remains old, and invokes the devil to make him young again and the story proceeds as it normally does. It could have been interpreted that he flashed back when the devil showed up except McAnuff shoots this interpretation in the foot the moment Faust returns to the moment when he drank the poison the first time at the end of the performance.

But the confusion does not end there. I am not against intelligent interpretations of works. "Faust" has long been derided as a fluffy interpretation of Goethe's master work. A good comparison to the widespread opinion of the work would be Puccini's "Powder and Minuets" attitude toward Massanet's "Manon." So I certainly appreciate McAnuff's attempt to explore the potential of "Faust" as a serious work of art. However, such risks do not always payoff completely, and this is certainly the case for McAnuff's work. McAnuff seems to think that in the 20th century (where he sets "Faust") science has essentially replaced God. Why do I believe this? The chorus of angels is replaced by scientists in lab coats (at the end that is). They also show up in the famous church scene to replace the chorus of the demons, leading me to believe that the scientists being in the church as demons is an outward statement against religion. So maybe they are demons since both they and the demons in the often omitted Walpurgis Night Scene (here inserted unwisely without the energetic ballet to lighten the heavy final two acts)  are both creators of the bomb. This would all be fine and dandy except I can't help but wonder why are scientists in lab coats singing that Christ has resurrected when they are not supposed to believe in that God (if the concept holds any salt)? In this case it seemed like A. McAnuff got lazy or B. McAnuff simply ignored the text and assumed that because it was in a foreign language, the audience did not know the text and would not bother with subtitles either.

Other confusing questions: where does  Marguerite go when she dies? Where are those stairs leading her to? Is there a heaven in a universe where Science has presumably become/ destroyed God? Why is the Atomic Bomb concept abandoned after the Walpurgis Night Scene and make no impact on the opera's final scene?

With regards to the final question, I believe that the answer is actually simple: the concept when ignored for the majority of the first acts actually makes the work breathe. As in, when McAnuff simply focused on McAnuff's staging of Faust by Gounod and not "Faust" as manipulated by McAnuff, the opera was entertaining and filled with both the joviality and grace that permeate these three acts. The atomic bomb and its scientists were almost nowhere to be seen and it was all for the best. When the material seemed to get uncomfortably heavy and the comedy was nowhere to be found, McAnuff relied on the science concept more like a crutch to hide his discomfort and lack of ideas for the dramatic sections of the work. The pacing slowed by the second, something which would have been aided by the upbeat ballet that he chose to omit. He might as well have just dumped the entire Walpurgis nights all together. It would have shaved off a good 20 minutes of running time and sped up the night.

Before I actually give McAnuff some positive comments (there were a few) I would like to make one final complaint that has bothered me not only in this production, but several others. At several points in the work, Marguerite's face was projected upstage. From the top of Family Circle only a portion of her face was actually noticeable. The same happened during my performance of Satyagraha where text was unreadable because it was too high and far back up stage. Why do directors not make it a point that all people in the audience can see important details on stage? I understand that they are dealing with a massive stage and all its details are impossible to see from all angles. But the IMPORTANT details like someone's face at a moment of revelation should be seen from ANYWHERE in the audience. This is supposed to be enjoyed by EVERYONE, not just those sitting in orchestra or grand tier or parterre just because they pay more money for tickets. It sends the message that no one cares about the people in family circle or whether they can view IMPORTANT DETAILS of a staging. And might I mention that those people are likely the YOUTH that Gelb wants to expand opera to? Technical issues like that can irritate and turn off young people with their expectations of state of the art entertainment.

The production does have its high points, the lighting being the best among them. A grimy green adds a psychedelic element to the Walpurgis Nights while the turquoise of Act 1 brings us into a world of magic. A misty blue adds an icy tone to the church sequence, while violet adds a dreamlike quality to the romance of the third act. There was also a sunset portrayed through subtle changes in the color of the lighting. Even as a storytelling vehicle the lighting was more effective than any scientific addition or allusion. A blue light envelopes Mephistopheles to make him invisible to those around him. A simple trick, but effective in expressing a simple idea. McAnuff did not limit the lighting to setting the mood but also as a partner to the music. During Mephistopheles' famous "Golden Calf" aria the high contrast in the lighting adds to the  darkness of the mood and the possessed nature of the people on stage. But McAnuff goes further, having the lights turn on and off in coordination with the orchestra's chordal punctuation. This enlivened the dance and added to the excitement of the music.

The use of video projections were spare but effective in adding an element of magic to the production (I wonder if it cost as much as the Ring Cycle whose video projections were far less compelling).  As the opera commences a projection of a sad looking Faust appears across the black curtain almost to confront the audience and create an uneasiness that pervades the atmosphere throughout. Before Act 3 and Act 4's respective curtains we are shown Marguerite's projection but with differing expressions, first innocent and flirtatious and later filled with remorse and pain. There were other projections that as I already mentioned were not possible to see from my seat.

Jonas Kaufman is, in my opinion of course, the best tenor in the world at the moment. He has a vast repertory from whom a great night is always to be expected. This one however, by Kaufman standards, was not a great night. The orchestra seemed to overwhelm him in the beginning of the night and he was not projecting as much as one is accustomed to from him. The moment everyone waits for (the High C on the "Salut Demeure") should have been his high point but ended up being his lowest point in the performance. During the opening night performance he sang the C in full voice but refused to hold it for too long. Some critics noted a desire to hear him diminuendo that C in the vein of a Corelli or like Giuseppe DiStefano's famous performance. Kaufman took that risk on Saturday, but it did not come out the way he had hope. He sustained the C full voice for a few seconds, but as he attempted the diminuendo, he seemed to lose control of the voice and cracked. However, being the great performer he is, he ended the aria beautifully. I don't believe one note should opaque the quality of a performance and I usually wouldn't have mentioned it had it not been Faust's big moment.

Those moments aside, Kaufman sang beautifully. His mezzo voce at the start and end of that same "Salut Demeure"  and the start of the Love Duet felt like gentle caresses. His ringing high notes during the end of the Walpurgis Nights and Act 4 Trio were filled with strength and confidence. However, his Faust was anything but strong and confident often depending on the Devil to facilitate his wooing of Marguerite. However his frustration with Marguerite's rejections of his sexual advances did make one doubt the sincerity of the tender romancing in his voice.

Marina Poplavskaya also had a solid night as Marguerite. Her voice has a dark and heavy hue, a far cry from the sweet and delicate voice one is accustomed to hearing in this role. However, she made up for it with her committed singing and acting. She didn't need to have the sweet voice to show off Marguerite's innocence. She frolicked to and fro and flirted with the audience during the celebrated jewel song and threw off the coloratura with ease and flexibility. She ran away from Faust like the young school girl who is both excited and scared about her first love. In the final acts, her mature sounding voice was more attuned to the maturity and despair of the character. She seemed to relish this material even more than the music in the earlier acts singing Act 4's opening aria with tragic intensity, despair, and passion, pushing her voice to the brink.

Faust is a misleading work. It's plot centers on Marguerite's, not Faust's, tragedy, but is ultimately dominated by the multifaceted personality of Mephistopheles. Often times, the roles comic and dark colors prove to be scene stealers for any decent bass. In this production in particular, Mephistopheles even takes control over others with magical powers, emphasizing the centrality of his character. On this night, the devil was played by Rene Pape, one of the world's most versatile basses. Pape has a robust youthful voice with tremendous volume. Whenever he sang with another soloist, he easily (though likely unintentionally) drowned out the other. He reveled in the character's charm, doing a hilarious dance during his "Golden Calf" aria and the ensuing waltz. His rapport with Faust in Act 3 made him endearing and the moment where he transforms the garden for Faust and Marguerite's love duet made him mystical and glorious. But when the role called for the evil of the devil (the church scene) he was truly a threat. To say Pape's Mephistopheles was in complete control is a vast understatement: Pape dominated the night in all vocal and theatrical aspects and was the ironically the brightest star in an overall somber night. I'd be tremendously interested in seeing him play Boito's darker "Mephistopheles" at the Met in the near future.

The supporting cast was also quite solid. Russel Braun as Valentin seemed overwhelmed by the sound of the orchestra early on but seemed confident and composed during his romance. Michelle Losier sang beautifully as Siebel, the unfortunate boy in love with Marguerite.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin had a triumphant night in the pit, though his success was easy to overlook with the bombast of the production and star power on stage. He gave the Met's orchestra muscularity during the work's heavy moments, but balanced it with grace and suavity during the opera's lighter sections. I thank him for taking a nice balance of tempi, both swift in the dance sections, but also free and rhapsodic in the romance of the opera's third act. It was hardly his fault that the opera seemed sluggish in the final acts of the opera; that one is on McAnuff.

I applaud McAnuff for attempting to breathe new life into Gounod's "Faust," but unfortunately, the results are far from satisfying. His greatest success was when he trusted the text and let the story breathe on its own with some subtle brushstrokes. However, when he tried to impose his will on the work and manipulate material that was simply not there, the concept crushed the opera and ultimately created a great deal of confusion and incoherence.


  1. Your review nailed it! Love the title!

  2. Worst production of last season. I almost walked. I didn't but almost. And I never walk.

    I have no idea what the heck was going on with it either.