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Le Veau D'or Est Toujours Debout: Faust at the Met

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
Le veau d'or est toujours debout: Faust at the Met For Faust's much-touted return to the Met stage, the Met orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin gave Gounod's score of their best, and brought out the best in it. There was fine singing, as well, with René Pape a standout as a magnificent MéphistophélèsDes McAnuff's production, however, lacked coherence, and lacked likewise a clear central idea to give either intellectual or emotional urgency to the drama. As a gentleman in front of me in line for champagne at the interval observed, it's hard to get romance going in a chemistry lab. If McAnuff had picked a chemistry lab of the early twentieth century and stuck to it--the Devil with an offer for unscrupulous career advancement, Marguerite as a bachelor girl secretary, perhaps--this might have been more effective. Going a less literal route could work as well. But the religious and romantic sentimentality of the central acts was left untouched, and, as far as I could tell, played without irony and without commentary, which made very little sense in this context. Also, I can't help but take issue with a production that chooses to evoke two of the twentieth century's greatest collective traumas--the First World War and the detonation of the atom bomb--and then not integrate them in the drama in a way that makes it clear how they affect the characters.
The excellence of the Met orchestra and chorus formed the backbone of the performance. Nézet-Séguin led an energetic reading of the score, and a noticeably loud one, though I didn't think there were significant balance problems. Nuance and lyric sweetness were there when called for, but not wallowed in; the sinister orchestral undertow was emphasized in the first act, and both "Le veau d'or" and "Ainsi que la brise légère" were given a feverish--not to say fiendish--intensity. The final trio was taken at a more deliberate pace than I expected, allowing the harps to come to ecstatically shimmering prominence. The chorus contributed excellent work as well, with a strong, sonorous "Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux" (sung by a depleted army of the lame and wounded, with zombie-like movements while gathering for a photograph. I did like that Valentin nearly punched the photographer when the flashbulb sent a shell shock sufferer into fits.) The resurrection chorus was delivered with soaring radiance, and the entire chorus received well-deserved and enthusiastic applause at their bows with Donald Palumbo.
Le veau d'or est toujours debout: Faust at the Met Smaller roles were well filled, with Wendy White a strongly characterized Marthe, with sly phrasing and appropriately fussy mannerisms. Canadian mezzo Michèle Losier made a vividly sung Siébel, with warm tone and pleasing lyricism. Russell Braun's dramatic talents were underused as Valentin (a shame, given the potential of the role) but he sang well, displaying his gift for legato phrasing in a beautifully shaped "Avant de quitter ces lieux." As Méphistophélès, René Pape oozed charisma, and sang expressively and with panache. Suave, humorous, charming, and of course completely unscrupulous, Pape was a delightful devil indeed. His French was excellent, and he gave much of his dialog an appropriately ironic twist. He had good chemistry with Kaufmann, and their voices blended well in their duets. "Le veau d'or," sung with a snarl and a smile (and a deceptive appearance of ease,) garnered show-stopping applause for good reason. The entire performance was of remarkable caliber, and Pape's vocal and dramatic energy helped animate the evening considerably.
Marina Poplavskaya struck me as a weak link in the performance, unfortunately. She was not helped by the direction, which limited her to scurrying away from Faust in alarm in the first half of the opera, and staggering about in distress in the second. I have found her an involving and intelligent actress in the past, but she seemed curiously lackluster here, and her vocal performance did not have the polish or charisma to compensate. Her intonation problems were more than usually prominent; she had a tendency to drift flat, and missed the first high A of "Ah! je ris" entirely. By "Anges purs," Poplavskaya sounded tired, but supportive collaboration from Kaufmann and Pape helped balance the trio and carry it through. First night nerves may be partly to blame for a lack of apparent connection with Kaufmann's Faust, and the direction may also call for aloofness (why?) but there was never a sense of urgent desire repressed and acknowledged, or of fear and capitulation (and I'm not completely sure which narrative McAnuff was going for.)
As Faust, Jonas Kaufmann sang with elegant phrasing and elegant French, but the cumulative effect was curiously restrained. Gounod's weak-willed sensualist was not given a clear alternative development by McAnuff; in his opening scene in the laboratory (inclusive staged overture) he is clearly a broken man, horrified by the history he has helped to create, but the rest of the opera gave him a limited range of stage action. Faust is clearly Méphistophélès' pawn, and frequently dismayed by this--and his ardor for Marguerite was convincingly acted and sung--but I didn't feel that the performance fully ignited. Kaufmann did sing very expressively, with his thrice repeated "Rien!" descending into bitter despair, and his thrice repeated "Dieu!" a cry of anger rather than an implausible expression of piety. His initial "Je t'aime" caressed the melodic line as ecstatically as if it were a proxy for Marguerite herself, and "Salut! demeure chaste et pure" was sung with admirable sensitivity. Guilt, grief, and tenderness were all given musical expression in the final scene, before Faust is seized by the devil (I'd swear I saw Kaufmann go gray.) The final tableau returns us to the frame of the hallucination: the aged Faust's suicide in his laboratory. Like Faust, I was left mourning missed opportunities.
Curtain call photos:

Le veau d'or est toujours debout: Faust at the Met

Rene Pape's suave Mephistopheles

Le veau d'or est toujours debout: Faust at the Met

Jonas Kaufmann

Le veau d'or est toujours debout: Faust at the Met

Cast and company (with chummy Faust & Mephistopheles)

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