Review: McAnuff gives Met an atomic 'Faust'

Associated Press
In this November 22, 2011, photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, Jonas Kaufmann, left, performs as the title character in Des McAnuff's new production of Gounod's opera "Faust," with and Rene Pape as Mephistopheles during a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)
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In this November 22, 2011, photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, Jonas Kaufmann, left, performs as …

NEW YORK (AP) — There's much to admire about Des McAnuff's new production of "Faust" at the Metropolitan Opera — and much that's easy to ridicule.

What tipped the balance in favor of success at Tuesday's opening was the exceptional work by a fine cast of singing actors led by tenor Jonas Kaufmann, soprano Marina Poplavskaya and bass Rene Pape.

Their performances, sharply directed by McAnuff, guaranteed that for once Gounod's opera came across as serious and even gripping theater, rather than as an insipid melodrama with a gorgeous score.

And rarely has that score sounded more captivating than in the rhapsodic account by the Met orchestra under the guidance of the young conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

McAnuff, better known for Broadway hits like "Jersey Boys" than for opera, has framed "Faust" as the fantasy of an aging, guilt-ridden nuclear scientist alone in his laboratory. Despairing of humanity, he drinks poison, and in his dying moments relives his youth and imagines the entire plot — from summoning up the devil to seducing and abandoning the fair Marguerite.

The atomic bomb that Faust apparently helped develop is there as well — though it doesn't detonate until about 3½ hours into the evening when a mushroom cloud appears as demons sing of a "bright light."

What all this has to do with Gounod's opera is debatable, but the surprising thing is how little it matters.

Under McAnuff's hand, plot and character are clearly and skillfully delineated and the action moves fluidly. There's little of the extraneous clutter that sank the previous production by Andrei Serban.

The lab, with spiral staircases and walkways on either side, is designed by Robert Brill as a single set in which all the action takes place. At the rear, a screen shows projections, serves as the backdrop for Marguerite's house, and finally rises to reveal the staircase on which she ascends to heaven. Technicians in white coats serve as stagehands, moving tables and chairs around for scene changes.

McAnuff's work is especially effective with Poplavskaya's Marguerite, the character who undergoes the greatest change, from a tremulous, love-struck virgin to a betrayed lover to a deranged mother who drowns her infant in a fountain.

This gifted actress manages the transitions with total conviction. At first, she runs about the stage like a coltish teenager. Later, her body swollen with her illegitimate child, she moves haltingly and her face (projected onto the curtain) bears the marks of her suffering. Her performance is full of small, telling gestures, like the way her hands instinctively recoil from touching the wound of her dying brother, Valentin.

Vocally, Poplavskaya has most if not all the tools for the part. Her high notes can turn thin and glassy, but her large, bright voice is appealing and she sang with compelling emotion and attention to the text.

In the title role, Kaufmann started off a bit shakily (or was he deliberately sounding old?), but he soon found his stride. He took an unusual number of passages very softly — and sang them with his trademark caressing tone. Given that, it was disappointing that in "Salut! demeure chaste et pure," he did not take the climactic high C at reduced volume as he does on his recording of the aria.

Pape was simply tremendous, far more relaxed and vocally imposing than when he starred in the Serban production six years ago. His Mephistopheles is at first a jovial and only slightly menacing trickster who dresses Faust in suits to match his own and even performs a soft-shoe routine during his drinking song. This initial charm makes all the more horrifying his sudden change to a figure of implacable evil when he curses Marguerite in church.

As the unforgiving Valentin, baritone Russell Braun sang with fervor but disappointing lack of power; mezzo-soprano Michele Losier was vivid and touching in the "trousers" role of Siebel.

This production, which originated at the English National Opera, restores both the spinning-wheel and the Walpurgis Night episodes, requiring all six scenes of Acts 4 and 5 to be played without a break. It adds up to a long evening, but one of McAnuff's strengths is the way he makes each scene melt seamlessly into the next.

For example, after her brother's death, Marguerite is seated by herself on a bench outside her house. The chorus leaves, and we notice Mephistopheles off to one side. Suddenly, organ music introduces the church scene and the chorus of worshippers — wearing those white lab coats again — sing as the devil repeatedly interrupts Marguerite's attempts to pray for salvation.

McAnuff and his team predictably received some booing when they came out for bows at the end. But it wasn't nearly as vociferous as the cheers for cast and conductor.

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