Reviewed by Tony Villecco
I attended my first live-from-the-Metropolitan Opera, HD, big-screen production last Saturday (Dect. 10). One has to applaud the Met’s foresight to bring opera to the masses this way, up-close and personal and far more reasonably priced than an orchestra seat. Gounod’s Faust opened the Metropolitan back in 1883. This latest production was, overall, a fine one with some excellent singing– despite the director Des McAnuff’s decision to transplant the opera to the 20th Century, between the world wars.
It remains an enigma to me why directors insist on changing the time period, place and often the actual settings of standard operatic repertoire. It is all under the pretense that the productions are old, outdated or that, to attract newer and younger audiences, one has to re-create something quite fantastical. I find this notion absurd. Why in hell (pardon the pun) would anyone take this classic story of Satanic temptation, so eloquently penned by Goethe in 1808, and re-plant it outside of its origin?
That said, the production did not suffer musically. The fine orchestra played the lush score with passion and pathos led by the dynamic Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Met’s chorus was solid as a rock, and Gounod wrote plenty for them. As Faust, Jonas Kaufmann showed why he is at the forefront of today’s operatic tenors. Not only has he the good looks and acting ability, but his voice, with an almost a baritonal quality at times, is phenomenal. Kaufmann’s phrasing and breath control are impeccable. His ability to maintain a pianissimo, especially in his upper register, serves as a testament to his technique. His forte singing and gorgeous full-throated high notes earned extended applause from the audience.
Soprano Marina Poplavskaya was equally as fine. Her Marguerite was a full character –innocent, lost, confused and desperate. She demonstrated vocally the overall torment that this poor soul suffers throughout: her fear of love, then her passion, then her excruciating insanity. Particularly stirring were the couple’s love duet during Act II and her often-omitted Act IV aria, “The Spinning Wheel Song” (“Il ne revient pas”). Baritone Russell Braun as Marguerite’s brother, Valentin, also was excellent. His voice has a rich, strong, focused tone, which he used to great effect, particularly the scene in which he is killed by Faust.
The Mephistopheles of bass René Pape didn’t miss a beat of the character’s suave sexuality, sarcasm and consummate evil. Pape has practically perfected this role, and his attentive and handsome bass voice was both menacing and thrilling. As Siébel, the youth in love with Marguerite, mezzo Michèle Losier was also exceptionally good. Her lovely and strong voice further helped to delineate the young boy’s unbridled passion yet youthful naïveté .
The production was long in part due to the seldom performed Act V, Walpurgis Night. Still, this was crucial addition to demonstrate the evils of the underworld with both some haunting demons and moody stage lighting. Overall the opera had a very Metropolis silent movie feel to it. The reflection of Marguerite’s face projected upon the curtain was, at least, an effective image harkening back to the great German director F. W. Murnau’s classic 1927 silent film of Faust.