Faust – 10/10 for trying

After all the negatives about McAnuff Faust my expectations for this afternoon’s HD broadcast were pretty low. I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the production is perfect but I don’t think it’s incoherent let alone dull. It also made me think a lot about the opera and the characters and that’s a good thing. Overall, it’s the sort of production I’d like to see more of. Far better a production that slightly over reaches than dull mediocrity.

I thought it opened quite strongly which is probably because Marguerite hardly appears in the first two acts. The idea of Faust as a disillusioned atomic scientist is a neat one though it might fit better with Goethe or Marlowe’s knowledge seeking Faust than Gounod’s rather shallow pleasure seeker. Still there’s a certain coherence in then moving back in time to the point where the events that lead to Hiroshima begin; in the first world war. It began to unravel a little bit as McAnuff tried to get to grips with Marguerite and I think it’s clear why. Marguerite simply isn’t a real human character which is massively problematic as the story becomes largely about her. She’s a projection of mid 19th century male neuroses about women; the “Angel in the House” personified. That’s not a character that can be sympathetically portrayed to a 21st century audience or easily placed in a 20th century setting. Add on to that the rather repellent religiosity of the final scene and we can that the problem here is not McAnuff but Gounod and his librettist. To McAnuff’s credit what he doesn’t do is fall back on slapstick humour to cover the bits that are essentially impossible to stage as written. He sticks with the core of the libretto story but it’s a stretch to find Valentin’s reaction to his sister’s seduction believable. Similarly the soldiers’ chorus in Act 3 rings hollow. The sentiments are not those of people who have come back from Verdun as anyone who has ever tried to talk to a WW1 veteran will know (my grandfather served on the Somme and at third Ypres). I liked McAnuff’s attempt to desentimentalise this scene but it didn’t go nearly far enough. The Walpurgis Night scene seemed like a missed opportunity too. The element of decadent glamour was completely absent which seems odd to me given the time periods chosen. I liked the ironic use of humour in Mephistopheles character. It was balanced and that’s important again because irony is not a mid Victorian strong suit as anybody who has ever read back issues of Punch will know. I’d watch it again quite happily and I’m sure I would see any number of things I missed first time through.

Musically it was top class all the way through. Nezet-Seguin has this score down pat. The singers were all terrific. Pape was athletic vocally and physically and played his role with real panache. Kaufmann was almost overpowering for the role (though that might be the usual overblown cinema sound) and Poplavskaya was utterly committed to her interpretation. I thought she sang as well as I have ever heard her. Top marks too to the ever reliable Russell Braun and, new to me, Michele Losier.

Technically this was better than many of the Met broadcasts. Mostly the camera direction respected the rather clear way in which the stage picture was set up. Sound got muddy at times but wasn’t too bad (though there were a few drop outs). I suspect I’ll buy the DVD when it becomes available. I want to take another look at the production and better than cinema quality sound will be a bonus.

Final thought; the interval interviews are starting to get utterly tedious. Someone think up some new questions please. Even Danni de Niesse bubbling over couldn’t wring any life out of them.

3 thoughts on “Faust – 10/10 for trying

  1. You know, I went in with such low expectations that I, too, was pleasantly surprised. I thought that there were elements that didn’t fit, but altogether it wasn’t the train wreck I’d thought it would be. I found the Walpurgis Night scene creepy, and wish that they’d gone with decadent glamour, as you said, but the rest was not that bad.

  2. I enjoyed it, as well. Not perfect, but what is? Like you, it gave me an opportunity to see these characters in a new way and I appreciated that, and I particularly likde the way MacAnuff ended the opera, which, in a way, made any inconsistencies explainable as a kind of “fever dream”. Personally (and as a former tenor it’s saying a lot), I found Kaufmann to be just incredible. Vocally, it was of course more Corelli than Gedda, but, again, that suits me just fine. And the fact that he can sing Faust that well in the same season as Siegmund is astonishing — not quite like the Callas move of doing Puritani and Walkure in the same week, but damn close. All in all, it was a very satisfying production for me, and I couldn’t quite understand all the boos MacAnuff got at curtain call.

    • I think there’s an ultra conservative faction at the Met who resent it whenever one of their “money set to music” productions is replaced by something a bit more challenging. We have them in Toronto too. Fortunately every harsh winter sees their number diminish!

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