20 December 2011

A New ‘Faust’ at the Met: Le Docteur Atomique

Pape, I can hear you: Méphistophélès sings of the Golden Calf.

By rights the headline of Saturday night’s performance of Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera should have been the house debut of conductor Pierre Vallet, an auspicious occasion in itself and a promising display of bench strength in a company recently shaken by the declining health of the once-indefatigable James Levine. The Met needs good conductors right now, and on the strength of this performance, it’s got a new one to call upon.

But in the event, it was an accident that made the news: during Act III, the stalwart mezzo-soprano Wendy White, as Marthe, dropped some eight feet through a gap between a backstage platform and one of the galleries that flank the set, designed (if that’s the right word for it) by Robert Brill. Bass René Pape signaled to Vallet to stop, then tenor Jonas Kaufmann voiced that command, and Pape said, “Curtain! Curtain!” (A useful reminder that cool-headed professionalism extends beyond showing up on time and performing well.) There followed an impromptu intermission lasting about 45 minutes, before the show resumed, with another reliable favorite, Theodora Hanslowe, stepping in for White, who was taken to the hospital as a precaution. (She’s reported to be doing fine.) The accident is just one more reason to hate Des McAnuff’s Eurotrash-wannabe production, which has generated considerable debate in New York since it opened last month.

Troupers: Mezzos Jane Bunnell and Maria Zifchak (top),
Theodora Hanslowe and Wendy White (below) are among
the best-loved residents of Opera World.
(Just ask their colleagues!)
Photo by Dario Acosta for Opera News.

The fact that European audiences are obliged to watch stagings more arbitrary than McAnuff’s is cold comfort to the Met’s audience, admittedly conservative and accustomed to more luxurious settings than the voice-swallowing warehouse interior that Brill and McAnuff provided. Little touches — such as Faust’s praising Nature (leading into “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure”) while addressing a plumbing fixture (a laboratory sink that doubled as a holy-water font) — probably go over most people’s heads. And it must be said that the vision McAnuff imposed on the work isn’t as outlandish as, say, the stuff Calixto Bieito has thrown onstage, like the Ballo in which Renato sings “Eri tu” while sitting on the crapper. (Speaking of plumbing fixtures.)

McAnuff sets his Faust in the first half of the 20th century: Valentin and Wagner march off to World War I, and Faust (who is a scientist, after all) has something to do with the atomic bomb, which may belong to Méphistophélès, although Faust has already got one of his own when we first see him. The story’s themes of temptation and power are thus linked to our own times, and McAnuff has said that he was inspired by the late Jacob Bronowski (best known in the U.S. for The Ascent of Man), who renounced a distinguished career in physics after seeing the destruction caused by the bomb at Hiroshima. Fine. Faust renounces science, too. But what do you do with all this, and is Gounod’s Faust the right vehicle for your ideas? Is there anything in this opera that will sustain video of a nuclear explosion?

Gounod’s Faust is not Goethe’s (to the point that Gounod wanted to call his opera Marguerite instead); and while some works reward directors who return to the source material, this is not one of that kind. The principal philosophical aim of this opera is to affirm traditional Roman Catholic notions of sin and redemption — period. Gounod isn’t out to make us think, and he doesn’t seek to shock or titillate us (as his contemporary Offenbach would have done), which is why his Walpurgisnacht scene is about as racy as an ice-cream social. His Faust is designed to preach to the choir, if you will, engineered to suit a conservative, bourgeois audience that had ample reason to be comfortable with the status quo in Paris under Napoléon III. Which is to say, an audience not unlike that of the Metropolitan Opera in present-day New York.

High-Church Ritual: Marguerite is redeemed,
while a flock of lab-coated angels looks on.
When Susan Graham sang this role in Robert LePage’s staging of the Berlioz version of the story, she had to climb a ladder the height of the Met stage.

That set-up gives a director plenty of leeway, actually: what is the disruptive force in our present-day society, and what is the established order? What signifies temptation, and what signifies redemption? What are the tensions between them? And so on. The music itself will permit you to go only so far, however: it’s pretty, and intended to be, even when it’s depicting infanticide. If you’re going to try to explore any outside, unpretty ideas — such as nuclear weapons — then you’ve got to try to reconcile your ideas with Gounod’s score. I saw scant evidence that McAnuff recognized the real challenge, much less rose to it. Really, it seemed as if he spent the whole production wishing he’d been asked to direct Doctor Atomic instead of Faust.*

Vallet at least had a firm hand on what he could get away with, and he delivered a polished, flavorful yet absolutely faithful account of the score. Even when I found myself wanting a little more idiosyncrasy — more character in the soldier’s chorus, for example, where we might profit from the sense that testosterone, patriotism, and bloodlust are boiling under the surface — Vallet kept his cool. The melodies came swirling up like pure mountain springs, and for all that the military numbers were rousing, they couldn’t match for force and majesty the High Church chorale that greets Marguerite’s ascent into Heaven.

Pierre Vallet

A onetime physics student himself, Pierre Vallet conducted Faust in Barcelona earlier this fall (a debut at the Gran Teatre del Liceu) and assisted in the musical preparation for the current run at the Met, where he’s been on the conducting staff for 15 years. Vociferous friends greeted his arrival at the podium on Saturday, and he displayed remarkable poise all evening, even when the overenthusiastic crowd began cheering Kaufmann’s star turn in “Salut! Demeure,” well before the orchestra had finished. Vallet turned to the violins, shrugged, and grinned as if to say, “What’re you gonna do?”

Kaufmann’s burly, baritonal tenor voice made this Faust quite intriguing (it doesn’t hurt that he’s good-looking and a fine actor, too), and while I missed a certain visceral thrill in his high notes, he sounded terrific. This is one media darling who deserves the acclaim. Kaufmann attempted a few vocal effects that probably would have worked better in a different acoustic environment: as it was, the vast, empty set swallowed many of his soft-singing effects, especially in Act I.

Pape is one of those singers you can tell right now is going to be remembered as a titan, in generations yet to come. He was having a high old time as Méphistophélès, and between his wit and the cut of his suit, it seemed almost as if Alec Baldwin were playing the role (and I will now look at Jack Donaghy as a more diabolical character). Gounod’s score, which Pape has sung many times before, is catnip to him, and his singing was as confident and stylish as his acting; his French diction is sterling.

Dapper: Kaufmann & Pape

Marthe is a gem of a role, a generous reward for mezzos exactly like White and Hanslowe, seasoned pros with comic flair and vocal character: both ladies know exactly how to score points with every phrase and gesture here. White was about three lines shy of the end of her big Act II scene when she fell, so that Hanslowe didn’t have much opportunity to strut her stuff, but still, the Saturday audience can say with pride that they heard two top-notch Marthes.

Baritone Russell Braun warmed to the role of Valentin, surprisingly self-effacing in Act II but pure fire in the duel and his death scene in Act IV. A singer of remarkable taste and intelligence, he rose here to thrilling heights. Jonathan Beyer towered over the rest of the cast and sang attractively as Wagner, Valentin’s sidekick, here depicted as mere cannon-fodder. Mezzo Michèle Losier looked terrific as the boy Sièbel, and though her stage deportment struck me as too girlish, she sang “Dites-lui” with the right vibrant impetuosity.**

Poplavskaya & Kaufmann

Soprano Marina Poplavskaya sang Marguerite, and it’s impossible to avoid suspicion that she was cast primarily on the basis of her looks: vocally, she was far from her comfort zone, with high notes especially taxing both to her and to her listeners. There was never a moment when she won me over, as she did in Don Carlo last season: I really felt she was in over her head, and just by opening their mouths, Kaufmann and Pape wiped up the floor with her. That in turn threw off the balance of the opera, which is, after all, about Marguerite. What I heard Saturday was an opera about Méphistophélès and Faust.

But there’s no denying, either, that physically Poplavskaya was charming, and any sopranos who inherit this production will be hard-pressed to match either her willowy figure (exquisite in Paul Tazewell’s costumes) or her stamina when climbing umpteen flights of stairs into Heaven.

McAnuff’s production makes use of video projections — becoming something of a signature of Met stagings under the Peter Gelb administration. To this audience, they make the set look remarkably flatter and less interesting, but in close-up pictures like this one (or like a high-definition simulcast screening), they do look pretty cool.

*NOTE: It’s interesting that the same week that saw me recalling Des McAnuff’s Big River so fondly also found me dismayed by his Faust. You win some, you lose some.

**A staple of the master classes and recitals at the Festival International du Chant Lyrique in Canari, Corsica, “Dites-lui” makes an entirely different impact when sung in its original context, and I admired it afresh on Saturday. Sièbel is an excitable boy, and keeps interrupting himself, frequently distracted even while he’s obsessing over Marguerite. It’s an ingenious aria.

POSTSCRIPT: Back in the day, blonde sopranos really knew how to sing Gounod. Here’s Tintin’s friend Bianca Castafiore, the “Milanese nightingale,” whose entire repertoire consisted of nothing but the Jewel Song.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your comparison between this and the strange productions that have become standard in Europe. It is none the less my impression that most of those productions in more adventurous opera houses at least manage to give the audience something interesting to watch. This production was just plain dull!

Jim N said...

I wanted to attend the HD movie broadcast; however, when I saw some of the drawings, photos, and read articles about it, I decided not to. From this review and others I've read, I'm glad I saved my money and listened on the radio. Kaufmann is my favorite male voice after Siegfried Jerusalem had to bow to inevitable age. Kaufmann sings all kinds of things. His Werther from Paris almost two years ago is available for very little at www.medici.tv

Jim N said...

I forgot to add that I agree with your sentence comparing the prettiness of the Gounod's music with the stage picture and the resulting mental dislocation. The same thing happened to me when I saw the photos of the Bayreuth Lohengrin of mice and rubber swans. I didn't spend the money to watch this past summer's streaming performance of it. I don't get to see much live opera and don't have the weariness some people may have who are able to attend more live opera than me.

Pattie Kealy said...

Dear "Bille"

My husband and I were at the opening night of Faust on Nov. 29, and we, like you, were dismayed by a set which totally diminished the strength of Kaufmann and Pape. In fact, it may be the only opera we've ever seen that was better in the HD broadcast (Dec. 10), which included enough close-ups to actually get some sense that there was something on that stage besides fire escapes and plumbing fixtures. We think that Ms. Poplavskaya was a bit better on opening night than at the performance you saw, though clearly not up to the level of her male colleagues. We totally agree with your assessment of Kaufmann and Paper. Your review was the best we have read of this production, and it suggests a trend in Met productions that is not that promising. We also saw the Mary Zimmerman Sonnambula a couple of years ago, which was equally dismaying. We enjoy all aspects of your website. Do continue.

Pattie and Kieran Kealy, Vancouver, B.C.

Anonymous said...

Ouch! I didn't agree with a good bit of your review. At least, I had a rather less intense reaction to what I agree are some conceptual confusions in this production. I never bother posting comments but your review is the most intelligent I have read and I thought it should be said. (I'm looking at your other stuff now too.) Glad to have discovered your blog. Bravo!