Thursday, December 22, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Gounod’s Faust. December 20, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle D208 ($37.50).

Story.  The aging scientist Faust makes a deal with the devil Mephistopheles to recapture his youth in return for having Mephistopheles as his master in the world below; this after Faust sees the image of Marguerite conjured up by Mephistopheles.  While Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, and Wagner are preparing to go to war, Mephistopheles shows up and predicts the death of Wagner in battle, of Valentin by someone close to Mephistopheles; and that any flowers Siebel picks up will wither.  Mephistopheles then brings Faust to see Marguerite.  Siebel gathers flowers for Marguerite and they wither, holy water however restores them.  After leaving a box full of jewels for Marguerite, Mephistopheles helps Faust to seduce her, and she becomes pregnant.  When Valentin returns from battle, he fights with Faust and is killed, with Marguerite watching.  Marguerite kills her baby and is condemned to death.  Faust and Mephistopheles go to the prison to see Marguerite who dies.  Faust and Mephistopheles go down to the underworld but Marguerite is saved.

Conductor – Yannick Nezet-Seguin; Faust – Jonas Kaufmann, Marguerite – Marina Poplavskaya, Mephistopheles – Rene Pape, Wagner – Jonathan Beyer, Valentin – Russel Braun, Siebel – Michele Losier, Marthe – Theodora Hanslowe.

I heard the ending of this opera when listening to WQXR’s opera broadcast.  The announcer gave a very vivid description of the ending where Faust and Mephistopheles descended t hell and Marguerite climbed up a staircase.  She also talked about the people in lab coats becoming angels during the last scene.  When I read the New YorkTimes review, I was less impressed.  The review wasn’t all that positive, and the setting was between world wars when Faust was a scientist developing a nuclear bomb.  Eventually curiosity got the better part of us, and reasonable good seats in the Family Circle were available.

Jonas Kaufmann must be the tenor-du-jour for the Met this year (or is it tenor-du-annee?), there is no escape if you pick up a recent copy of the Playbill, and his picture is plastered all over inside and outside Lincoln Center.  This is also a reason I wanted to see this opera.  I remember a similar situation with Dudamel the conductor, in that case I was quite impressed with him.  Alas, that is not the case here.  His voice for the most part did not carry well into the rear of the opera.  Sometimes this could be attributed to the acoustics of the specific seat; but every now and then he would do okay, and many others' voices came through clearly.  To be charitable, perhaps tonight he was a bit (or way) off.

Rene Pape is a dependable bass and did quite okay.  There are quite a few grotesque figures in the opera, so there was no intention of white-washing the evilness of Satan; yet Pape didn’t sound or look menacing at all.  One can go overboard trying to play the bad guy, but it is a greater failure if the audience doesn’t feel the slightest bit of disgust at the devil’s deviousness, as was the case tonight.

I enjoyed Marguerite’s voice.  As with Pape, her acting did not elicit the expected emotion.  Her role is someone caught up in other people’s actions and had no escape except for the final redemption scene.  I felt no pity, no horror, and no relief when she in turn was abandoned by Faust, killed her baby, and ascended to heaven.

Siebel, a young pupil of Faust, was sung by a mezzo-soprano.  Not having read the Synopsis carefully before the show, I actually thought for a long time he was Marguerite, and got very confused when Marguerite first appeared.  This tradition of having a young man’s singing to be done by a woman continues to confuse me to no end.

The staging works well for the scenes called for in the opera.  The spiral staircase and walkway on either side of the stage provide a natural place for singers to linger and observe, and for the chorus to congregate.  Beyond that it does not make much sense.  When one hears of “nuclear bomb laboratory” and “Faust” one might think the bargain with the devil is to create this weapon of mass destruction.  If this is indeed the intention, the director and set designer fail spectacularly: there is amusement and puzzlement, but no horror.  If this is not the intention, they what the heck …  I really felt cheated when the “ascension” scene came along – Marguerite simply walked up a stair case, complete with landings at the turns.  The WQXR narrative made it so mesmerizing, but it was just someone in a haggard dress climbing up to the catwalk.  The few “magic tricks” (e.g., withering roses or how Marguerite transformed from being pregnant to holding a baby in her arms) were unnecessary.

The music is generally pleasant, which may not be the adjective you want associated with Faust.  This opera when it first came out was extremely popular.  Indeed what we saw was the 740th performance by the Met.  We also heard it in French, evidently versions in other languages exist.

For me, anyway, the comparison of this with Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust is unavoidable.  The latter was not composed for the opera but I thought the Met did a good job with it.  It is interesting to note that Gounod’s work premiered in 1859 while Berlioz wrote his in 1846.  I wonder if there was any rivalry between the two composers at that time; there was no reference of it in the Playbill.

I just reread the New York Times review.  The reviewer is very positive on the singers, while I am not.  For me, how good an opera is starts and ends with the musical performance, the rest is gravy.

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