Faust, an opera by Charles Gounod

December 14, 2011 at 9:42 pm (Music, opera)

Saturday I afternoon I went with a friend to see the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of  Faust, by Charles Gounod. I am still recovering from the experience – indeed, I may never recover….

I’ve known and loved this opera for decades, ever since I first purchased this recording; . Listening to it over and over again, while following the libretto in French, I inadvertently committed large chunks of Faust to memory, where much of it still resides. (Having studied the French language in high school and college proved most helpful.) Nicolai Gedda as Faust, Victoria De Los Angeles as Marguerite, and Boris Christoff as Mephistopheles – what a dream cast! Saturday’s was equally so:

Rene Pape

Marina Poplavskaya

Jonas Kaufmann

Rene Pape was great as Mephistopheles, employing his rich bass voice to great effect in portraying this very embodiment of evil. (He was also good at standing around and looking faintly sardonic.) Last year, Ron and I were deeply moved by his performance in the title role of Boris Godunov.

Here’s Rene Pape singing the the aria “Le Veau D’Or” (the Golden Calf) in a production of Faust that took place in Orange, France, in 2008:

I cannot resist including Boris Christoff’s rendition of Faust’s Serenade: “Vous Qui Faites L’Endormie.” Having engineered her downfall, the Devil taunts Marguerite: “Ne donne un baiser m’amie, que la bague au doigt” (‘Do not bestow a kiss, my friend, until you have the ring upon your finger’):

(I just discovered that you can get this masterpiece of malevolence as a ringtone! Yikes, I think I’ll pass on that….)

Marina Poplavskaya, who plays the ill-fated Marguerite, is a singer new to me. I thought she was wonderful. Not only is her voice rich with a crystalline purity, but her acting was terrific. Marguerite goes through a terrible transformation, from an innocent, dreamy young girl to a woman utterly despoiled in the eyes of everyone – and in her own eyes as well. Ultimately she goes mad, and who can blame her? She has been monstrously used by the seducer Faust (and his ally the Devil), and Valentin, the brother who acts as her protector and supposedly adores her, turns on her cruelly.

Here, she sings the famous “Jewel Song” (unfortunately not presented in its entirety, but you’ll get the idea):

And as for Jonas (pronounced ‘Yonas’) Kaufmann – simply astounding. This has to be one of the great tenor voices of this age, or any age. The first video contains an excerpt of the famous showpiece aria “Salut, demeure chaste et pure,” in which Faust expresses his awe and the simplicity and purity of Marguerite’s dwelling place (which, of course, he then proceeds to defile):

Here, Kaufmann sings the entire aria. (We can readily surmise whose ghostly hand rests on Faust’s shoulder):

The production has been newly conceived by Des McAnuff. McAnuff is an experienced artistic director of musical theater; this is his first foray into the staging of grand opera. He has placed the opening action of Faust at the conclusion of World War Two, as preparations are being made to unleash upon an already battered world the  horrors of the atom bomb. When Faust is made young again by Mephistopheles, we go back in time to just before the First World War. Click here to hear Mr. McAnuff enlarge further on his ideas.

Mr. McAnuff comes across as an intelligent, earnest person. But I did not care for this production. I found it incoherent. The set was quite ugly; the lighting was dim, in keeping with what is apparently the latest trend in the staging of operas. Actually, it occurred to me that the shadowy darkness made it possible to at least partially ignore the unrelenting drabness of the stage set.

At the opera’s climax, Marguerite ascends to Heaven, having been forgiven by a merciful God. At that sublime moment, I wanted to see a stage bathed in light; I wanted to see her attended by a multitude of angels. Instead, there was a single spotlight illuminating Marguerite, as she climbed what looked like the stairs of a fire escape. Worst of all, her attendants were poker faced chorus members clad in white lab coats.

What can I say? I’m a traditionalist. At least one reviewer agreed with me (always a gratifying happenstance!)

I do agree with this reviewer: the cast was superb and triumphed with ease over the problematic production. I am no expert in these matters, but it seems to me that the production of an opera should enhance and illuminate the work  – not distract or interfere. In conclusion I have to say that I loved the performance and managed, with some effort, to keep the production elements from impinging on the experience.


In the spirit of the season, here is a gift of rare beauty: Jonas Kaufmann singing “Cantique de Noel” (O Holy Night):

1 Comment

  1. bettysbrownies said,

    Excellent review of this production. I saw it in the house several days before the HD telecast, and while the musical values were top notch, the design and direction certainly left more than a bit to be desired. I have no problem with modern dress productions or re-imaginings, but unless they bear a rational relationship to the composer’s intentions, they’re pretty self-indulgent, it seems to me.

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