The opera "Faust" by Charles Gounod is a terrific work, which I got the chance to see last night. My feelings on the new production of "Faust" at the Metropolitan opera in New York City is highly favorable with regard to the music, but a little indifferent to the visual set, costumes and staging. First of all, this is the version of "Faust" by Charles Gounod, and the music is beautiful. The opera has been loved by audiences for over a century and a half. The cast yesterday evening December 3rd included Jonas Kaufmann was Faust, Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite, Rene Pape as Mephistopheles, Russell Braun as Valentine, Jonathan Beyer, as Wagner, Wendy White as Martha, and Michele Losier as Siebel. Incoming music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
This new Met production of "Faust" takes place before the second World War, in an atomic bomb lab. Some of the effects of the set were really striking. At first, I was indifferent to the projections of Marguerite and Faust's faces on the curtain. However, it did work in the later part of the opera, when Marguerite was projected in jail for killing her baby in a fit of madness. Soprano Marina Poplavskaya, and Jonas Kaufmann, both looked their respective parts in those projections. Another aspect of the staging and set which was effective was Faust's transformation into a youth. That was a less than a minute costume change time wise, which luckily worked out. The smoke which accompanied the transformation blew me away for a moment. As for the time period, I am not sure what to think, because a conception of a story is a conception, and it is all based on opinion. The lab with the spiral stair cases was a neat visual effect. However, Faust and Mephistopheles were constantly going up those stair cases, which was a bit distracting to me. Also, for this opera in particular, I found the set too minimalistic. For the fair in Act II, I wanted to see an actual fair. In Act III, I wanted to see an actual garden. In Act V, I wanted more of a taste of what hell actually looked like. In the beginning, I was nearly taken away to another realm by the set. However, I just wanted more. I remember seeing the Berlioz version of this story "La Damnation de Faust" two years a go, and the hell scene actually had the men down below. I liked that much better.
Musically, conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin did a fabulous job with the orchestra, and in following the singers. The fact that he is doubly trained as an orchestral and choral conductor must have been a tremendous help to the chorus and soloists. When singers took liberties, Maestro Nezet-Seguin followed them. Last night's cast of soloists were very skilled singers. Especially, Jonas Kaufmann, and Rene Pape. Jonas Kaufmann, sang a splendid high B natural in the second act, and did a diminuendo to pianissimo seamlessly. My mouth dropped, and my heart nearly stopped when he did that. Also, he sang the act three aria so musically, and with such passion, that I closed my eyes during some of it, so I could be at one with his art. His heroic high notes in the later acts made me think he has vocal cords of steel. The end of intermission before Act III involved a man screaming "occupy wallstreet" right before the conductor took the podium. Whether that was an idea for a new vocal warmup we will never know. Rene Pape was fantastic vocally and physically as Mephistopheles. His rendition of "Le veau dor" was a highlight of the whole show, and got a huge response from the audience. In addition, Pape was able to mix devil charm with devil menace to great effect. Marina Poplavskaya sang very musically as Marguerite, with very intelligent phrasing in the Jewel song in the third act. Russell Braun has a good lyric baritone voice, but his intonation pushed sharp on occasion. Never the less, I really liked his acting in Valentine's death scene in Act IV, when he curses Marguerite. I was happy to see Jonathan Beyer make his Met debut as Wagner. I think it is a good role for him. Michele Losier's portrayal of Siebel was a nice addition. Overall, this production of "Faust" was a strong show. However, I think some of the aspects of the production kept me from being completely blown away. Some of the singing from Kaufmann and Pape did blow me away for sure. After this month, the great bass Ferruccio Furlanetto will take over for Rene Pape. In addition Roberto Alagna, and Joseph Callejo will take over for Jonas Kaufmann.