By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this can be viewed on www.metopera.org
Saturday, May 23
Gounod’s Faust ~ 3Hrs 10Mins
Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, starring Marina Poplavskaya, Jonas Kaufmann, Russell Braun, and René Pape. Transmitted live on December 10, 2011.
This opera, of course, is another of many tellings of Goethe’s enduring Faust legend. It concerns a disillusioned and aging philosopher who feels his life’s work has amounted to nothing and has caused him to miss out on the joys of youth and love. Jonas Kaufmann (we’ve seen him so far in Die Walküre, Parsifal, and another Goethe inspired story, Werther) plays the title character in what is arguably Gounod’s most popular opera. Des McAnuff’s updated 2011 production places the timeless story in an early 20th-century setting (think Damn Yankees! without the baseball angle- or the humor!). René Pape (we’ve seen him already in Parsifal, Tristan, and Boris Godunov) is the dapper devil Méphistophélès – menacing and elegant in equal measure, and Marina Poplavskaya (recently in Don Carlo) delivers an intense portrayal of the innocent Marguerite. Russell Braun (recently in Capriccio) is her soldier brother, Valentin. On the podium, Yannick Nézet-Séguin brings out all the lyricism and drama of Gounod’s music in one of the assignments that won him the permanent position of Music Director at the Met. Faust was actually the very first opera ever performed at the (old) Met – in 1883. Offering an ardent tenor role for the title character, meltingly lyrical music for the beautiful and naïve Marguerite, and a smooth-talking take on Mephistopheles for the bass, it delivers on most all the hallmarks of 19th-century French opera.
One of the things audiences have appreciated about this opera over the years is its straightforward and natural telling of the story…. it’s just a good story – no need to load it down with deep meanings or some kind of existential despair that is simply not in the original piece. On that score, you’ll have to judge this particular production for yourself – it updates the story to the 1930’s – the period between the world wars, and certainly has many clever ideas and effective new theatricality including sometimes horrible, sometimes beautiful video images. But Faust, usually presented as an old philosopher who feels he has wasted his life with fruitless scholarship, is here a middle-aged scientist, first seen wearing a sensible three-piece brown suit. This Faust apparently works in a laboratory where the atomic bomb is under development.
The staging uses some eye-popping video segments, including huge, black-and-white close-ups of Faust’s and Marguerite’s faces. There are definitely touching moments in the dramatic performances by this talented cast, but much of the atomic bomb grimness that pervades the production feels imposed on the opera, not drawn from it. Before long, the modern metallic scaffolds of the set feel somehow intrusive to me – but you can judge for yourself.
Just to remind you of the basics, Faust’s inability to poison himself and his consequent cursing of his fate, causes the devil to conveniently appear in the person of a dapper, white-suited Méphistophélès. He offers riches, power, and glory but Faust refuses them all; he wants only to recapture the “desire, enchantment and innocence of youth.” Méphistophélès shows him a vision of Marguerite and Faust immediately agrees, but of course, there is a price. The devil will serve Faust on earth, but Faust must serve him below.
In Act II we meet Valentin who is a soldier going off to war. While he worries about a guardian for his sister, Marguerite, he nevertheless joins in a last hurrah before departing. Méphistophélès (literally) drops in, provides wine, and sings the famous, devilish drinking song, “Le veau d’or” (The Golden Calf). He engineers a confrontation with Valentin and demonstrates his powers of both fortune telling and sword fighting (in the nuclear age!), while providing Faust with his first chance to dance with Marguerite.
In Act III we have many of the opera’s most famous arias – Faust has found Marguerite’s home and is enchanted by its sweetness:
Quel trouble inconnu me pénètre?
Je sens l’amour s’emparer de mon être
O Marguerite! à tes pieds me voici!
Salut! demeure chaste et pur
Où se devine la présence d’une âme innocente et divine!
What unknown emotion now fills me?
I feel that my whole being is in the grip of love.
O Marguerite, here I am your feet!
Hail, chaste and pure dwelling where
One can feel the presence of an innocent and holy soul.
Marguerite enters and sings her melancholy ballad about the King of Thule (Il était un Roi de Thulé), but then she finds the jewels Faust has ordered Méphistophélès to get for her and sings the famous Jewel Song (Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir). She is smitten, and by the end of the act, seduced.
Act IV finds Marguerite (inexplicably) abandoned, pregnant and outcast. Her brother Valentin has just returned from the war and rushes to see her, but Méphistophélès and Faust appear, he is taunted into a duel and Faust accidentally kills him when Méphistophélès interferes. With his dying breath in her arms, Valentin blames Marguerite for his death and condemns her to Hell before the assembled townspeople
By Act V Marguerite has gone insane with grief and has killed her baby. She is in prison awaiting execution. Faust and Méphistophélès are cavorting with demons, but Faust sees a vision of Marguerite and is overwhelmed with pity. He asks to be taken to her. Marguerite panics at the sight of the Devil and, with a frantic appeal to heaven, she dies. Méphistophélès attempts to damn her, but angelic voices proclaim she is saved. As Marguerite steadfastly climbs tiers of steps to meet her heavenly reward, the choristers, still in white lab coats, stand on the side balconies and stairs, watching. In a final image (for this production – not the original – which has Méphistophélès turned away by the shining sword of the archangel as Marguerite is welcomed into heaven), Faust re-emerges as the weary old scientist in his study, who this time successfully completes his suicide through poison.
1. René Pape as Méphistophélès, Jonas Kaufmann as the title character and Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
2. Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite and Jonas Kaufmann as the title character in Gounod’s “Faust.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.