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Gounod’s 'Faust' in Modern Dress: The Met's Latest Live HD Opera

Catch the Encore Jan.11, 2012, at 6:30 p.m. at Regal New Roc City 18 and City Center 15 in White Plains.

Vocally superb, conceptionally a confusing failure!

That seemed to be the general impression of the audience of Charles Gounod’s "Faust," the latest entry of the Met Opera Live-in-HD-at the Movies.

"Faust," based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s universally celebrated, philosophical drama, tells the story of a man selling his soul to the Devil for the gift of youth with its passions and delights.

The Faust legend has been around, literally, for centuries, and is even traced to an actual alchemist, a Dr. Johann Faust, who died in 1541. It has been the subject of many interpretations, (Christopher Marlowe, Berlioz, Boito, Spohr, Liszt, even to an overture by Wagner) but as far as operatic attempts go, the Gounod version has been the hands-down winner.

Zeroing in only on the story line, its libretto by Jules Barvier and Michael Carre, so annoys the Goethe purists, that in parts of Germany, the Gounod opera is performed under the title: "Margerethe."

An amazing tidbit you might care to know about is that Goethe himself thought his play might lend itself for operatic interpretation—seems he consulted Mozart, as the only composer he wanted to attempt such a venture.

Goethe (1749-1832) starting his "Faust" at the age of 23 in 1772 took so many years to polish the complicated work, that by the time he finished, Mozart was long in his famous 'unmarked’ grave. One wonders what a gigantic operatic work the world has thus missed!

But we do have Gounod’s version, and although Goethe—with his disdain for romantic music might not have approved—the operatic world certainly has.

Premiered in Paris in 1859, the opera was not a spectacular success; but it later blossomed into super status after a decade of multiple revisions. Only Bizet’s "Carmen" and Offenbach’s "Les Contes d’Hoffmann" outrank it in number of stagings of French opera. (By 1975, in Paris alone, the opera had been staged over 2000 times.)

At our Met, it has been performed more than 700 times and had the honor in 1883 to be the inaugural opera to open the grandiose house on 39th Street. And why not – the opera has some of the most enchanting melodies, ear-catching arias for every voice, an exciting ballet and beautiful passages for the chorus.

And then there is that exciting story: Faust makes his pact with the Devil mainly because of his love (or lust) for the innocent young Marguerite who’s protective brother, Valentin, soon marches off to war. The Devil provides persuasive means for the unprotected Marguerite to surrender to Faust’s advances. Her resulting pregnancy, abandonment by Faust and Valentin’s cursing her (as he dies via intervention by Mephistopheles) drive her to madness and she kills the baby.

Incarcerated and condemned to death for her crime, her prayers do reach heaven; and whereas Faust is damned, she is forgiven and lifted up to heaven to the swelling of a magnificent hymnal crescendo.

Traditionally this legendary tale has been given a 16th Century setting.

Alas not this time.

Tony winner Des McAnuff’s production transforms the old philosopher into a remorseful middle-aged atomic scientist. This places Act I definitely after the dropping of the bomb in1945. Not an uninteresting idea for our violent times, but since there was no hot war directly after the end of WWII, what was Valentin supposed march off to? And what was Margurerite doing as part of the atomic team?

Confusing most of the audience, the costuming for the next act goes backward. I decided it was to suggest WWI to legitimize Valentin and his military companions. But why are Faust and Mephistopheles garbed in elegant white or striped modern business suits?

Robert Brill’s tiered set has spiral staircases on either side of the stage that are best used by Mephistopheles waving an ultra-magic walking stick to manipulate all the devilish action. But it really is disturbing that Marguerite has to climb to her celestial redemption via an additional set of steps that are very reminiscent of a fire escape.

No wonder every single member of the audience I spoke to, immediately told me they much preferred a more traditional setting.

As for the vocal and orchestral offering of this distorted production: it hardly could have been better. The title role was sung very successfully by the newest male superstar, Germany’s attractive tenor, Jonas Kaufman. (We understand he has a “groupy” following that travels wherever he performs!)

Rene Pape was excellent as Mephistopheles. The German basso is known for his outstanding enunciation as well as the beauty of his magnificent voice. But the clarity of every consonant here worked against him. French does not lend itself to rolling "Rs."

Russia’s Marina Poplavskaya as the innocent Marguerite managed a stellar dramatic performance that virtually broke your heart when she is awaiting her death, trussed in prison garb and shorn of her earlier girlish tresses. Her rendition of the ever popular “King of Thule” in Act III was especially sensitive in its vocal beauty. Usually performed with the singer turning a medieval spinning wheel, here she pedaled away on an old-fashioned Singer Sewing Machine! The music triumphed…

Mezzo-soprano Wendy White, as Marguerite’s ineffective duenna-style companion, delivered her role with all the right comic-relief touches. (We heard that during the Dec.17 performance of Faust, she fell about 8’ through an unhinged platform, which brought down the curtain and required a substitute to finish the part. At this juncture Ms White is reported to be recovering well at St. Luke’s Hospital. We hope she can resume as Marthe very soon.) 

The German baritone Russell Braun gave us a vocally strong Valentin and provided the right tension as he cursed his errant sister with his dying breath. The pants-part, Siebel, the student in love with Marguerite, was deliciously delivered by Canadian mezzo-soprano Michele Losier. She has an endearing, lovely voice.

All this exemplary singing was accompanied by the mighty Met orchestra with its own heavenly voice. Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who comes from Canada, is to be congratulated for the tone he drew from everyone involved in this romantic musical pleasure.

The music won over the misfired conception.

Here are some opinions expressed by neighbors of yours:

Ursel Staal of Scarsdale likes "Faust" but said it took her quite a while to get used to the modern setting. “I liked the old version I saw at the Met. This didn’t hold together.” She continued that she welcomed the HD movie versions “now that it has become difficult for me to get into the city and I feel I have been priced out!”

Sidney Rush of Somers, a regular at the HDs whom I queried on the phone, actually did not attend. “I went on line and read the London review of the McAnuff production which sort of panned it. And The NY Times did not like the production either. So I stayed home.”

Vivian Brown of Larchmont thought “it was interesting, but confusing, since the libretto often did not fit the modern action.” A relative newcomer to opera she said her “husband is thrilled that she likes the HDs and is more than willing to attend with him.”

Matthew Lanna of Ossining thought the singing superb. “The three leads are at the top of their profession. The conductor is excellent, but I did not like the changes in the context of the opera. I would not want to see this production again soon.”

Eva Agonston of Scarsdale preferred the traditional version. “It was more dramatic and the Faustian bargain made more sense. I found the Devil in all white hard to take.” Both she and her husband, Peter, thought the opera was too long. (I consider that the acid test of whether or not any performance succeeds!)

What do you think? Tell us in the comments

Glen K Dunbar January 01, 2012 at 10:10 PM
I saw the Faust. LOVED it. WIll see it again on 01-09-12. Followed by Tosca on 01-10-12 I am seeing the Gotterdamerung on 01-27-12 Later in the season I plan on seeing Butterfly Traviata and the full Ring too :) GLEN
George & Renata Rainer February 16, 2012 at 07:07 PM
Marlies' review of FAUST was highly perceptive, well researched and beautifully written. Thank you Patch! Renata & George Rainer, Irvington

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