Composer: Charles Gounod
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Director: Des McAnuff
Faust: Jonas Kaufmann
Marguerite: Marina Poplavskaya
Méphistophélès: René Pape
France and Germany have notoriously had a tumultuous relationship throughout the centuries, and one more subject of dissension is the Germans’ insistence of calling Faust, one of the world’s most famous French operas, by its heroine’s name, Margarethe. What gives? Well, it appears that a true blue Frenchman actively working in and for his own country during the Franco-Prussian War did not seem quite the right person to tackle Goethe’s monumental masterpiece. Moreover, Margarethe is the title of the play often associated with the novel on the other side of the Rhine. So there.
Although Goethe was adamant about Mozart being the only composer worthy of turning his epic drama into an opera, time was unfortunately not on his side and Gounod was apparently the only artist brave, or foolhardy, enough to try to tame the beast. By focusing on the timeless human themes such as the desire for youth, sensuality and salvation, all basking in unabashedly expressive melodies, he ended up with a solid hit, whose popularity has never faltered even through the numerous rounds of revisions. Therefore, while perusing the Met program at the beginning of the season, I figured that it was high time that I checked it out, especially when the cast included Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape and Marina Poplavskaya.
Faust’s plot line and moral may sound a bit simplistic (not to mention matter-of-factly): Selling your soul to the Devil is not a good idea. Although not dreadfully long, the opera still has five acts and two intermissions, which means almost four hours of watching, listening and waiting as Faust makes his pact with the Devil, seduces, abandons and drives to insanity an innocent girl, kills her brother, and finally repents too late. Very German AND very French, no doubt about that.
Naturally charismatic tenor Jonas Kaufmann was a superb Faust, impeccably dashing in his fancy suits and flaunting flawless vocal power to match. Whether fiercely conveying his intense lust for the pleasures of life or deftly turning into a sweetly seductive romantic, he handled the role with remarkable ease and flair.
Marina Poplavskaya was a lovely Marguerite, turning a character that can easily be just a one-dimensional pathetic figure into an all too vulnerable human being. Granted, she was seduced amazingly fast by the box of jewelry, but her mix of gullibility and coquettishness during the “Jewel Song” was sparklingly touching and fun, bringing some welcome light-heartedness to a rather thankless part.
Everybody’s favorite bass, René Pape, was, of course, a delicious Méphistophélès, suave and charming, but always aware of when to strike. With his magnetic presence, magnificent voice and debonair looks, he was the man running the show and obviously enjoying every single minute of it. So were we.
The chorus did a spectacular job, as usual. There does not seem to be anything this amazing ensemble cannot thoroughly nail.
As much as the cast came through beautifully, the production failed to make a lasting impression for the most part. Beside the ubiquitous stairs and scaffoldings, apparently modern operas’ favorite props, the overall impression was of minimalism, which is fine, and distance, which is much less so. Setting the story in the first half of the 20th century was not a problem in itself, but most of the time the feeling was of heavy-handedness and lack of purpose.
A couple of scenes, however, spontaneously grabbed my attention, such as Méphistophélès leading a macabre dance during the drinking song in the second act, or the giant red roses popping up in the background and in the air during the seduction scene in the third act. The large black and white portraits projected on the black curtain during the intermissions were riveting as well. But Marguerite’s image briefly looming in the background during the first act was frustratingly lost to most people in the auditorium's family section.
Character development may not have been Gounod's forte, but he more than made up for it by composing some memorable music. The orchestra took it all to heart and delivered a strong, richly nuanced performance. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is fast becoming a familiar figure at the Met, has just added yet another impressive conducting feat to his rapidly expanding resume. Subtly highlighting the refined elegance and passionate lyricism of the supremely melodic score, he knowingly let the music speak for itself.
The third act, in particular, during which Faust courts and eventually wins Marguerite, had truly exquisite moments. After Méphistophélès joined them, all three voices converged into a brilliantly soaring dramatic climax, the undisputed high point of the evening. Devilishly good, indeed.