New York, NY – The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Gounod’s Faust, directed by the confused opera newby Des McAnuff, has had critics and audiences members scratching their heads, mouths agape as they struggled to make sense of the conceptually inconsistent and arbitrary approach. When an opera is done with as much frequency as Gounod’s Faust, a piquant new production can challenge the audience’s longstanding interpretation of the work; however, in order to do that, the narrative needs to stay the same. The issue with Des McAnuff’s Faust is that he attempted to tell a different story, thereby begging the same question that is being thrust at the current revival of Porgy and Bess: “If you want to tell a different story, why aren’t you directing something else?”
In the opera, which reduces and summarizes Goethe’s Faust to concentrate on the title character’s relationship with Marguerite, Faust is an old doctor who sells his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, in exchange for youth so that he may be with Marguerite. McAnuff’s Faust updates the beginning of Act I to the end of World War II. Faust is a scientist working on the atomic bomb who, we guess, is so guilt-ridden by the destruction he is helping to create that he decides to take his life. AFTER he consumes some apparently lethal liquid, Mephistopheles appears to him and appears to take him back to World War I. It is unclear whether the next four-and-a-half acts are Faust’s hallucinations or if he has gone back in time to have another chance at Marguerite. Perhaps she was a lost opportunity? Either way, McAnuff takes the clearly linear structure of the opera and warps it, so that it makes absolutely no sense, leaving the audience with entirely too many questions. Is Mephistopheles real or an externalization of Faust’s sociopathy? Is this a fantasy or a painful recollection?
Luckily, the thorniest parts of this production are easily forgettable if you concentrate on the music and the performances. In fact, there are some very affective and musically sensitive touches that make the overall failure of this production that much more disappointing. The “Le veau d’or” scene in which Mephistopheles bewitches the crowd into a singing dancing frenzy was perfectly fantastic, in every sense of the word; the use of screens to create Marguerite’s unnervingly beautiful rose garden during the Act II quartet and duet; the seamless and terrifying transition from Valentin’s death (sung with chilling fervor by Brian Mulligan) to the church scene between Marguerite and Mephistopheles.
It was a relief to learn, before the beginning of Act V, that Roberto Alagna was not feeling well after four acts of uneven and unruly singing. Once considered an heir to the throne of Pavarotti, Alagna has more in common with Giuseppe di Stefano: a full, expressive middle voice, sweet diminuendi, and genuine fire. Unfortunately, as Alagna has aged he followed di Stefano’s ill-advised trek into heavier repertoire, most notably Radames, Don Carlo, and Don Jose, which has reeked havoc on his top. The high C at the end of Act II was alarmingly wide; an otherwise suave and youthful “Salut!” was curdled by a vulgarly bellowed high C.
Malin Byström, in her Metropolitan Opera debut as Marguerite, sang with two wildly contrasting voices. The current emphasis on singers looking like the characters has resulted in a grave casuality: singers sounding like the characters. Sure, Byström is young and attractive, but does she sound like Marguerite? No. Her middle voice, which comprises most of the role, is entirely too dark and monotone in color transforming Marguerite into an old, world-weary spinster. One needs only to listen to the Marguerites of Victoria de los Angeles, Mirella Freni, and Joan Sutherland, all singers with sizable instruments, who took the care to sing Marguerite with attention to vocal character. On the other hand Byström’s top was bright, clear and exciting. Unfortunately, the disjunct between her middle and her top demands that she briefly pause before a high note; the two very different lands cannot be connected.
Rene Pape as Mephistopheles was the undisputed champion of the night. An intelligent, musically and dramatically sensitive singer, Pape takes inspiration from another time when basses still sang vowels other than “ah” and managed to avoid shoving their larynxes down their throats in a vain search for color. Mephistopheles serenade in Act IV was sexy and seductively menacing. The church scene with Marguerite was sung with a thundering, onyx tone, tinged with fire and brimstone.
It was too bad that, in this performance of Faust already rewritten by Mr. McAnuff, that Mephistopheles didn’t really win at the end.
Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera