Gounod - Faust
Metropolitan Opera 
December 6, 2011

If there's any opera in the main repertoire I actively detest, it would be Faust. Yes I know it has great tunes, and good parts for the tenor, bass, soprano, and baritone. But the opera just bores me to tears. I can't stand it. So of course when the Met announces a new production, my first reaction is to buy a ticket. Such is life.

The production is borrowed from the English National Opera. Des MacAnuff has set Faust in a nuclear scientist's lab, and as Faust strikes a deal with the devil, he seems to take a trip back to the future, as all of a sudden the women are wearing 19th century frocks and the men are fighting with swords. (Wait a minute -- in the 19th century swords were out, but no matter.) An industrial unit set with two spiral staircases down the sides of the stage with a few props and changes in lighting (as well as the inevitable projections) indicate changes in scene and mood. The production seems to imply that Faust is a lonely scientist's fantasy (Marguerite is first seen onstage as one of his lab technicians).

It's an interesting concept that for some reason failed to really deliver. For one, the grim scientist's lab setting changes into a corny Army barracks with Valetin, some soldiers, some women dressed in 19th century frocks, a setting so traditional it wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1883 Met debut. The production turns positively treacly when Faust and Marguerite fall in love. All of a sudden, roses fall from the sky and it's pink everywhere. The last two acts have a prominent cross dropped at the center front of the stage as Marguerite goes through her pregnancy and then kills her baby. Then all of a sudden the mushroom cloud explodes ... when Marguerite kills her baby? The last scene was somewhat effective, as Marguerite was locked in a jail and then ascends up the unit staircases to heaven, while Faust wakes up in his lab again. Still, there were many scenes with little to no effective blocking (the Soldier's Chorus is one example), and other scenes which were incomprehensible. Concept productions only work if the concept is carried throughout the opera. Otherwise it just seems like a failed attempt to be clever.

The lovers in their duet. Notice the cheesy roses

The cast that was assembled was overall a strong one. Jonas Kaufmann in the title role remains a wonder of the opera world -- a deep, rich, baritonal voice that can also ring like a trumpet. He has a solid high C for "Salut", and, for a German, enough of an approximation of the French style. He sang much of the role in mezza voce, managed a beautiful diminuendo at the end of Act Two on "Oh belle infant, j'taime," and tried to inject some genuine Romantic angst into this cardboard role. I just find the role of Faust shallow and unappealing. Marina Poplavskaya (a replacement for chronic canceler Angela Gheorghiu) is one of the strangest singers I have ever encountered. At times her voice can really project a beautiful, intriguingly icy sound. Other times, she sounds like a squealing cat. This can happen from one note to the next. Her top can be solid and open-throated, and then constricted and shrill. As a result of her vocal inconsistency, her performances are always disjointed, her beautiful moments like finding a few diamonds in a coal mine. The "Jewel" song had a smudged trill and some screamed, awkward high notes as well as some yelping coloratura. The final trio has some similar problems. The usually cut prison aria was beautiful though, as was the Thule song. I've heard Poplavskaya several times now and I'm starting to think she's essentially a short soprano with an extremely problematic top. She's a good actress, but she and Kaufmann had little to no chemistry. In fact, they were positively chilly towards each other. 

Pape does his thing

The best music of the opera goes to Mephistopheles, sung with smarmy humor by Rene Pape. It's almost as if Gounod knew that the romance of the opera was treacly and the religious symbolism heavy-handed, so he created one role that was lovably irreverent. The Golden Calf has to be my favorite musical moment of the opera. Pape injected some much-needed lightness and energy into the very long evening. I realize that Pape is a seasoned vet at this opera, and some of the Devil schtick has probably been carried through from production to production, but it was still fun. His basso can sound surprisingly light and lyrical, and at home in the French repertoire. Russell Braun was a solid if unexciting Valentin.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin was another hero of the evening. Gounod has a natural tendency to sound ponderous and treacly, even in orchestration. The pocket-sized conductor kept things moving along, with a light touch. The Met orchestra sounded beautiful under his leadership. One particular moment that stood out to me was the finale of Act Three. It's a rather slow, lugubrious duet between Faust and Marguerite. Poplavskaya was having trouble (another squealing cat moment), and Nezet-Seguin both slowed down the orchestra to accompany Poplavksaya, and also swelled up the sound, so that Poplavskaya's vocal harshness at that moment became barely noticeable under the glimmering wall of sound he created.

I think this will be my last Faust for a long time.


  1. Hi Ivy,

    I saw you in the balcony sitting a row behind me and wanted to say hi but I guess you moved downstairs after the 1st intermission! I have also had enough of this opera and agree with you on most points.

    The costumes were lovely but confusing - the women seemed to mostly be in WWI-era dress with a sprinkling of earlier silhouettes as well as local regional costume (regional to where, though?). Realistic period detail seemed to be in conflict with the rest of the design concept, and were those plastic glasses they were drinking from...I think so! Inconsistency reigned and here is yet another clunky, ugly production, and after the brilliance of "Butterfly" the night before, what a letdown.

  2. was it possibly not an intention how faust and marghuerite behave to each other in that production ? who knows.

  3. i mean intention of director.

  4. 19th century romanticism carries it's own beauty that reflects it's period as our own barren, glossy pop music world reflects ours. Faust might not translate well into an updated staging, but the opera is still among the most beautiful ever written and the extraordinary singing of Kaufmann, Pape, & Poplovskaya bring it to life. I felt lucky to be there a second time & will go again.

  5. I have not seen the production, but I feel like I've been given a honest review off what to expcet should I decided to attend the HD performance this weekend. Faust is not one of my favorite operas, but I think is has some great music. I love Margurite's Jewel song, church scene, and the final trio, so for me it is very important which soprano sings that role. From the radio broadcast I heard Marina Poplavskaya has some very resonand low and chest tones, but her coloratura and high notes (as Ivy pointed out) are very inconsistent.

  6. Thanks for all the comments! It's funny I love a lot of 19th century romantic stuff -- Romeo et Juliette for instance, just to name another Gounod work. I love Jane Eyre too. But Faust just strikes me as a work too much of its time, with its stilted romance and dose of religious preachiness. I also find Marguerite a punishing role that pushes most sopranos to shrillness.

  7. And blue sorry to have missed you!

  8. If you detest Faust you really detest OPERA

  9. I saw it Saturday and Kaufmann choked on the Salut aria as he came off the high note, bringing moans from the audience.

  10. Oh, Anonymous Faust-lover, what a ridiculous comment!

  11. Seriously? If I detest Faust I detest opera? That's like saying if I don't like a certain figure skating that I don't like ice skating. Yeah, I'd spend my hard-earned money and time on something I don't like.

  12. I was there as well on Tues night-up in FC Box. I do believe, Ivy Lin, that we saw/heard the same performance. I dozed off and missed the Jewel Song.There was some very good singing and I liked the conducting. As for the production-they should have left it in England. They could have saved money and used the Dr Atomic set. This is not my favorite opera, though I will attend with a good cast. I much prefer Boito's Mefistofele-but that's just my particular failing.

  13. I much prefer Romeo et Juliette, and I "know" that it's the 'weaker' opera with longeurs and whatever. But R&J I find with the right singers to be a very romantic, overwhelming experience. Faust and I never clicked.

    And the Jewel Song? You didn't miss that much. Poplavskaya has many things going for her as a singer but clean coloratura, trills, and bell-like high notes are not among them.

  14. England sold it to the Met and won't take it back, they hate it that much!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

COVIDammerung -- The End of the World in Met Streams

Comparing Nutcrackers Across the Pond

Angela Meade's Anna