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The Subject Was Roses

December 04, 2011

Jonas Kaufmann and Marina Poplavskaya Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011
With all the twittering about protests and such, you might forget there was an actual opera performance going on at The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday night. There was one and it was immensely frustrating. It was the second performance of a new production of Gounod’s Faust directed by Des McAnuff that was seen earlier this year at English National Opera. This time around it starred Jonas Kaufmann in the title role alongside Marina Poplavskaya as Maguerite and René Pape as Méphistophélès. The show, although admittedly not an entirely home-grown production, is a step in the right direction for the company after a number of recent awful premieres such as Michael Grandage’s Don Giovanni that appeared to have virtually no stage direction at all. But despite its aspirations, this Faust is unusually empty at most moments.

McAnuff has ideas, all right. The story goes that when Pamela Rosenberg originally commissioned what would become John Adams’ Doctor Atomic for San Francisco Opera she had asked the composer for a work to fit into a series of productions related to Goethe’s Faust that would cast J. Robert Oppenheimer as just such a figure. Well, she didn’t get exactly what she’d first asked for, but McAnuff has delivered more-or-less the same thing built atop Gounod’s setting of the story. Now Faust is an atomic scientist of the mid-20th Century working on the bomb and desiring his youth during an earlier war-torn era. It’s a single unit set consisting of a large steel girder framework with a spiral staircase and elevated catwalk on either side. Initially the elderly Faust (Kaufmann still showing his Movember pride) stands among the bombs and women in white coats scurrying about his lab before planning to end it all. Then Pape shows up in a white suit and Poplavskaya in the first in a series of hideous dresses that will haunt her all evening and we’re off to the races.

Or are we? The show seems to sputter and never recover from here on out. Very little changes from scene to scene and before long it all becomes rather dull to look at, like some sparsely appointed modern loft apartment, albeit one with a killer AV system. The characters in this apartment seemed superficially related to one another and scenes bleed from one to another with little differentiation. And even though I rather liked the small twist of an ending which reframed the opera in a manner more open to interpretation, it was like that same timidity had crept back in. This Faust despite its positives needs to go farther and needs to do more. This time a sharp looking contemporary design and overall concept was hollowed out with ambivalent and underdeveloped stage action. Even stage images meant to grab attention fell flat like the curtain of giant red roses that descends during the final parts of Act III. This problem was only compounded by a shockingly detached performance from Kaufmann. He wanders about with nary a clue to whether he is feeling love or anger or anything. As to how much of this was bad direction isn't clear, but it wasn't fun to watch. His vocal performance was not up to his recent standards either.He often turned to crooning and at the top of Act III, after the shouting incident, he cracked right in the climax of Salut, demeure chaste et pure taking a shine off of a performance that had a number of otherwise remarkably lovely moments. Poplavskaya was just a touch harsh vocally at moments, but she’s got the market cornered on onstage crazy and the maniacal look on her face in Act IV and V was a highlight. (Of course she is dirty and has a bad hair cut by this point indicating that she must be crazy given that these are the universal stage markers for madness.) The Act IV cathedral scene between her and Pape was the most engaging things got dramatically.

The unquestionable star of the night was Pape whose suave, somewhat bemused Mephistophélès was the charismatic center of the whole show. Let’s put it this way – if this had been a Saturday night at Akbar in Silverlake instead of the Met, as yummy as Kaufmann and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin are, on this night I’d still have chosen to go home on the back of Pape’s Harley in a hearbeat. But I digress. Nézet-Séguin led a lush, but light performance from the pit seemingly unflappable with all that was going on around him. He again left no question why everyone is rightfully excited about him on the East Coast as he turned another operatic warhorse into something musically enthralling. More of him, please. It was nice to hear some of the Act V cave scene preserved, although the ballet music was still cut. And while I'm at it, I would certainly be pleased to hear more of Russell Braun whose enraged Valentin seemed more like a suitor than the brother. Still I'd take this mixed bag over a number of recent things at the Met in that the show has some guts as compared to none. Who knows? With time and a different set of performances, this might turn out to be a memorable Faust after all.



Hearing Poplavskaya sing as Marguerite was like hearing Fleming sing as Armida: gratingly painful to overhear. Gheorghiu should have sung this role as promised.

P.S. May I ask what is the name of the painting (and the artist who painted it) in the background? I seem to have seen it somewhere before.
I think I wasn't quite as adverse to Popsy overall, but I'll agree there are several others who can sing Maguerite better. And despite her other faults, Gheorghiu would have been ideal.

The background image on the blog is "Bloemstilleven met horloge" by Willem van Aelst from 1663 and is currently in the Mauritshuis in the Hague.
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