Des McAnuff’s Faust at The Met

It was with Gounod’s Faust that the Metropolitan Opera opened its doors in 1883, and the company has done many a staging since. The latest production is in the hands of Des McAnuff. A veteran director, he has had hits on Broadway—e.g., Jersey Boys—and leads the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario.

Marina Poplavskaya in Faust. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Marina Poplavskaya in Faust. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

His Faust does not look like the score or libretto of the opera. That should not be a trivial concern. An audience member has a hard time knowing where he is in the opera: the inn, the house, the church? All of these places look more or less the same. McAnuff turns the title character into a nuclear scientist, making the atomic bombs at Los Alamos, apparently. John Adams wrote an opera called Doctor Atomic. Do we really need a second one?

I must not damn this production wholesale. It has some good ideas and neat effects. But Gounod’s Faust, like it or not, is a grand-opera treatment of a Christian allegory. McAnuff is imposing something different, it seems to me. Some will say that his Faust is more “relevant” than Gounod’s (or Goethe’s). Yet is anything more relevant, to any age, than plain old Faust? Does man change? Do lust, fear, cruelty, madness and all the rest ever go away?

Also, there is often something absurd in an updating. In McAnuff’s Faust, the swordfight of Act II is retained. So there they are, in the 20th century (right?), having it out with swords. The problem for McAnuff is that the libretto mentions swords, specifically. I don’t see why the mod director can’t just go ahead and rewrite that. Rewriting the music will come next.

Speaking of music, the Met delivered an admirable performance the night I attended. The performance made me feel much better about the future of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is set to take over as music director next season. In the recent past, he has been heavy on energy, or frenetic, and light on maturity. But he conducted Faust with sensitivity, understanding and plenty of maturity. His conducting was moving, actually.

Jonas Kaufmann sang title role well. His sound is sometimes constricted, and it would be nice if he freed it up. But he has an array of gifts. At the end of his big aria, he tried a diminuendo on the high C, and cracked horrifically. There is almost nothing more discomforting than to hear a tenor, or a French horn, crack. But Kaufmann’s error was brave: If you’re going to crack, do it in a good cause, such as that difficult diminuendo.

Marguerite was Marina Poplavskaya, the Russian siren. I mean no disrespect to Ms. Poplavskaya when I suggest that she does racy and sultry better than chaste and pure. Moreover, her Slavic sound, with its duskiness, does not quite suit Marguerite. But she is a wonderful singing actress, not without vocal chops: She brought off the Jewel Song with panache.

“I’ll do my best not to bore anyone,” says Mephistopheles. René Pape never could. The voice may show a little wear, but the charisma is immense, and he pretty much stole the show.

Just before the curtain rose following an intermission, a man in the audience started shouting, “Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Wall Street!” Some of the patrons cheered him on, saying, “Yeah, yeah!” Others booed. After a while, the man was shushed or evicted. He was more polite than the anti-Israel shouters in London: They shout at the Jerusalem Quartet or the Israel Philharmonic as the music is playing. This fellow did his shouting before the music began.