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Faust

Des McAnuff's updated production of Goethe's opera is very well-sung but suffers from too many unhelpful directorial notions.

By New York City
Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape in Faust
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape in Faust
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Perhaps wanting to restore some of the philosophical depth to Goethe's Faust that composer Charles Gounod and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre minimized for their 1859 opera adaptation, Des McAnuff has set his new production, now getting its U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, in the 20th Century.

However, transforming the title character, who makes a pact with the devil, into an atom-bomb-developing scientist longing to revisit both his World War I youth and a girl from back then turns out to be an unhelpful idea.

Fortunately, Yannick Nezet-Seguin's sturdy conducting and a great deal of unassailable singing by a seasoned cast mitigates the unfortunate foolishness resulting from the director's notion that the physicists behind the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks forfeited their "innocence" and lived to regret it.

Rene Pape as Satan (in a tuxedo with red bowtie) and Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite (under a wig that makes her look like Mary Pickford in a 1920s silent film) are the standouts here. Pape's bass remains so resonant and so expansive that throughout the compromised proceedings, he serves not just as a model of dignity, but also as a model of how to shake the building's beams.

Poplavskaya may be as well suited to Marguerite as to any of the roles to which she's drawn. She acquits herself beautifully on "The Jewel Song." There's something simultaneously warm and cool to her tone, which continues notably commanding during the final trio when, damned by Mephistopheles, she rejects Faust and goes to her ultimately redemptive death.

Jonas Kaufmann distinguishes himself playing the pivotal role, although he's showing signs of misusing, or misjudging, his voice. He's having trouble in his lower register that at one crucial point in the performance caused a regrettable break during a delicate crescendo.

Michele Losier as the Faust student enamored of Marguerite sings brightly, and Wendy White as Martha brings a welcome earthy quality to her passages. Donald Palumbo's much-used chorus, often outfitted in white laboratory uniforms and standing in rigid ranks, is as well-drilled as ever.

Over the years McAnuff has encouraged set designer Robert Brill to use metal stairs and walkways as basic units, and here they are again -- this time featuring spiral staircases at each side of the stage. Almost always, the structures become a metaphor for the chilliness afflicting too many of McAnuff's productions, and it's a problem here again.

Yes, Faust is a scientist, but it doesn't really add to the depiction of his research that he's introduced in a lab where models of the atom bombs are lowered and are returned into the fly when the man goes into the suicidal swoon through which he regains the past.

Furthermore, what purpose is served by having a man manipulate a tall soldier puppet during a military parade? Does the eye-catching prop symbolize something significant or is it just another cute production notion underlining the lengths to which McAnuff will go in a work that he's already rendered sufficiently mechanical.


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