Right, before I start, a confession. This is the first time I have seen a complete production of Faust. Any version of Faust, let alone Gounod's opera. I mean, sure, we all know the basic story. Old guy does deal with devil (or facsimile there of), gets youth, money, girl, loses girl and loses soul to devil by end. Its an old story, and, to be frank, the old stories usually are pretty good for operas, because the reason they are still remembered is they speak to us in ways that are meaningful Often, they speak to us in ways that change as we do. And of course, it is an opera that we all know bits of, as well as how the story goes.
So, Faust from The Met, in cinema release, with three outstanding singers in the leads and that new Canadian whizz kid conductor, in a new production, should be fabulous right?
Yeah, that was my thought too. Sadly, the director (Des McAnuff) has somehow failed to make this work. I suspect if I knew the opera better, I could give a better explanation, but all you really need to know is he failed to tell the story in a way that made it really live.
But first, back to the performers. As Faust himself, we had Jonas Kaufmann proving himself everything we have come to expect from him. Committed, with that beautiful well produced tone. He has the strength to carry through this long role, without tiring, despite the demanding music he sings. The fact that he can act as well, is a bonus, as is the fact he is very pleasing to the eye as well! As a performer to carry this opera, he would be one of my first choices, if I were in that position.
As Mephistopheles, Rene Pape too, was sensational. Really, these two seem rarely able to do wrong. They are both at, or approaching the peak of their performance abilities and on stage prove that their reputations are well deserved, unlike some performers, who seem unable to perform as well outside the recording studio.
On the other hand, Marina Poplavskaya, to me, while a great singer, sounds lost in this role. Vocally, she sounded too much like she was singing in her native Russian a lot of the time. I mean, in the right role she is stunning. But this role, is not hers vocally. The role needs a brighter cleaner sound than she seems able to produce. Having said that, her Jewel Song was fabulous, and I could well imagine her being cast on the strength of that alone. But, as many people will tell you, that aria is not typical of the role as a whole. On the other hand, she really did live the role. She was Marguerite, just a shame she does not sound right as her.
Of the others, Valentin definitely deserves praise. He was totally believable as the brother who was conflicted but could not forgive his sister her sins, even on his deathbed. Russell Braun sang with a powerful baritone, suggesting a big future ahead of him.
In the pit, Yannick Nézet-Séguin proved once again he is a young conductor with a big future ahead of him. He was able to keep the large forces of the orchestra and chorus well controlled, while maintaining a strong sense of mood from the atmospheric writing of Gounod.
Which leaves me with the director. Now, before anyone calls me reactionary, let me say that an updated setting of an opera can work, and often work very well… Indeed, in some cases they can make a work accessible, bring new life to a story and make it relevant to a modern audience. This is not one of those times.
I mean to my mind, Faust is about wish fulfilment, a fable if you like, about how you should be very careful what you wish for, because what you want is rarely what you need, and the consequences are often too much to handle. Fine, in theory, and it sounds like something that could be translated to a modern era without a problem.
There is one slight problem with that. Faust is very much a product of an era long gone. One where christianity was more what defined the world we lived in than science. Where a scientist was always a bit suspicious, not a trusted and valued part of our society.
So, in his wisdom, (because a director always knows better than the original creators, right?) the director decided to set it at the time of the second world war. Faust became an atomic physicist working on the atomic bomb (I do not recall the French having the bomb till long after that!) So, after moaning about his life and being about to drink the poison, Mephistopheles appears in a very snazzy cream suit and hat, and proceeds to seduce Faust in to the idea of having what ever he wants. Faust chooses youth, but of course, Mephistopheles gives him so much more. The story from then on takes off on its normal trajectory, more or less, though there were a couple of very odd things that stood out like sore thumbs, as if the director had no idea how to make them fit. (Including an atom bomb going off!)
Having said that, there were some good ideas, mostly badly executed, in the production.
The set was designed with two circular staircases going up out of sight at the front of the stage, one on either side. These were frequently used by Faust and Mephistopheles to go from one place to another, as if they were part of Mephistopheles powers, enabling him to easily travel where ever he wanted. Except sometimes he did not use them when he clearly should have, to fit the idea….
And the chorus. Such an integral part of Faust. Frequently so badly handled. Whose idea was it to put one door (!) on stage at the front, then to have all the chorus go in and out thru that for the soldiers' chorus scene when they returned? Really? It LOOKED awkward, and of course, the chorus had to all pile in before they could start to sing. And the ending? If you are going to have your angelic chorus on stage (Normally they would be offstage I would assume), and you have a set with a cat walk on either side of it, surely your angelic chorus (or those the audience see) should be up high on that cat walk, singing down to Marguerite, that she has been redeemed? Not on the stage floor with her? Oh, and making her walk up all those stairs to ascend into heaven? Surely you could have done something better than that?
But then, after all that? It all turns out to be a dream, from between when Faust actually did drink the poison at the start, and him dying. Because, right after Marguerite goes to heaven, there is a quick change and there is Faust looking old again like at the start, holding the beaker of poison, right before he collapses to the ground at the end. To me, that was the real insult. I mean, sure the story is quite unbelievable to many, but if you have to change the ending (and weaken its only happiness), surely you should just start with a different opera? Maybe get someone to write a Faust opera that fits with your ideas? Because, sadly, this ending was far too clumsy to work.
And really, I guess that is my big complaint with this production. It was clumsy. Things failed, not for lack of good intentions, but in their execution. And with the resources he had available to him, and the performers on hand, that is simply not good enough.