After several shows of non-standard opera the Met telecasts returned to the most standard of standard operas – Gounod’s masterpiece Faust. This performance  (Dec 10, 2011) was the 737th time the company has presented this work which was once such a staple at the Met that it earned the house the sobriquet of Faustspiehaus.  This new production staged by Broadway director Des McAnuff is temporally challenged. McAnuff moved it to some time in the first half of the 20th century, but everyone seems unsure exactly when the action takes place.

The telecast’s announcer, Joyce DiDonato, said that the action took place in 1945 and that Faust was a disillusioned nuclear physicist. Bass René Pape who played Méphistophélès said the story had unfolded between the two world wars. But the soldiers played by the beyond draft age chorus went off to war in the second act and returned in the fourth. So that ruled out the above two conjectures. They also wore uniforms resembling those of the French army in World War I. An atom bomb went off in fifth act bring us back to 1945. Maybe all this was intended. But if the music goes off as intended all this time travel makes no difference.

The sets were a mix of pipes and bomb-like gear. The above picture tells you what you need to know about them. The had the virtue of allowing the action to flow from one scene to the next without delay preventing the opera from dragging into the evening’s performance.

But again, none of the above matters if the singers and the orchestra are up to the task set by Gounod’s glorious music. It’s been de rigueur almost since the opera’s premiere in 1859 to downgrade to work as kitsch or low brow farina for the culturally unenlightened, but audiences have flocked to it despite the scorn of their betters. And as everyone should know, the opera world’s numero uno, Giuseppe Verdi, considered the audience (over the long haul) the only reliable critic; this critic has declared Faust a great opera

Jonas Kaufmann in the title role continues to be extraordinarily impressive. He has a dark voice with baritonal overtones. The voice is sizable and shows as I’ve previously mentioned that he’s ready to move on to heavier roles. Most of the choice Verdi parts seem ideal for him. He’s very good looking and has a graceful and intelligent stage presence. He sing with style and modulates his tone to suit the text and music. And while he can sing high notes softly he cannot do it with full vocal support, even Jussi Björling couldn’t do so. In the recording age, the two exemplars of filatura were Miguel Fleta and Giuseppe Di Stefano. No tenor since Pippo has mastered this technique. But this quibble aside, Kaufmann is a major figure who is just entering his vocal prime and who has a good shot at becoming the leading spinto tenor of his time.

Equally impressive,was the Marguerite of Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya. She has a lovely lyric voice and is an artist who inhabits her roles. She went from virginal naïveté to betrayed and abandoned lover with passion and conviction – a moving performance. That she accomplished this despite having to wear padding to make her appear pregnant in the fourth act  is remarkable; the libretto clearly states that she has already born Faust’s child by this time. Worse still was her delivering her baby on stage, but out of view, and then drowning it in a sink. I’m probably making it sound a little worse than it was – but just a little. Marguerite is the center of this opera especially with the restoration of the first scene of the fourth act with its touching aria “Il ne revient pas.”

René Pape was a big hit with the Met’s live audience, but to me his voice sounded dry and not as rich and refulgent as it has on previous outings. His devil was a distinctly Teutonic one and displayed little of the Gallic charm that other great basses have coated Gounod’s Mephisto. Russell Braun has a rich and vibrant baritone. He gave a superb rendition of “Avant de quitter ces lieux” and was equally impressive in his death scene where he repeatedly curses Marguerite. Michèle Losier was effective as Siébel.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has the score down pat. He supported the singers with feeling and sensitivity and got a rich sound out of the Met’s great orchestra. He doesn’t dawdle and is in tune with the passion and pathos that Gounod suffuses Faust’s score. Given his youth he should be a great asset to the Met over the coming decades.

In summary a first rate performance of one of opera’s great masterpieces. If you missed it, catch the replay. Barbara Willis Sweete’s TV direction was unobtrusive and effective. She’s getting better

Charles Gounod-Jules Barbier/Michel Carré

Faust……………….Jonas Kaufmann
Marguerite…………..Marina Poplavskaya
Méphistophélès……….René Pape
Valentin…………….Russell Braun
Siebel………………Michèle Losier
Marthe………………Wendy White
Wagner………………Jonathan Beyer

Conductor……………Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Production…………..Des McAnuff
Set Designer…………Robert Brill
Costume Designer……..Paul Tazewell
Lighting Designer…….Peter Mumford
Choreographer………..Kelly Devine
Video Designer……….Sean Nieuwenhuis
TV Director………….Barbara Willis Sweete