The Met: Live In HD Archived Reviews

McAnuff’s World War II-era ‘Faust’ fails to come to life

René Pape as “Méphistophélès.”

 By Sarah DeSantis
 What: Gounod’s Faust, Live HD Simulcast
 When: December 10, 2011
 Who: Metropolitan Opera
 Running time: 4 hrs, including one intermission
 Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
 Where she saw it: Regal Cinemas, Shoppingtown Mall
 Encore performance: Not yet determined

With Tony award-winning director Des McAnuff fresh off the Broadway production of Guys & Dolls, I expected an over-the-top rendition of Charles Gounod’s Faust, or at least a schmaltzy attempt at converting the vivacity of musical theater into opera. Instead there was a lifeless performance, held together only by the stunning voices of the Metropolitan Opera cast.

In Faust, the devil, Méphistophélès, offers Doctor Faust, played by the swoon-worthy Jonas Kaufmann, an opportunity to regain his youth in exchange for eternal damnation. Faust takes the deal so he can pursue Marguerite (Marina Poplavskaya), a beautiful woman, leading to the demise of almost every character.

McAnuff set his version of Faust during World War II, for a reason even he can’t explain during the intermission interview. The opera opens with Doctor Faust,  working as a scientist in what appears to be an American atomic bomb facility. After Méphistophélès (René Pape) convinces Faust of the deal, the remainder of the opera takes place in Europe–except for Act V, when flashing lights signal the atomic bomb falling on enemy territory.

Act IV is particularly problematic; When Marguerite’s brother, Valentin (Russell Braun), arrives home from war to discover his sister is pregnant out of wedlock, he challenges Faust to a duel — using swords. The juxtaposition of the advanced military tactics of World War II against a sword fight is ludicrous; even a more technologically advanced weapon like a gun would have appeared strange because dueling for a woman’s honor does not coincide with the World War II era.

Even these plot glitches could be accepted if McAnuff’s directing had not been so substandard. Excepting a few brief moments, the production lacked overall enthusiasm. Most of the secondary characters could have been painted onto the backdrop for as much movement and less cost. In Act II’s waltz, Ainsi que la brise légère, the chorus simply stood in the background while four couples intermittently waltzed.

But the chorus’s problems were small in comparison with Poplavskaya’s Marguerite. Poplavskaya does not have the femininity required to play a leading lady, especially one as beautiful as Marguerite. Michéle Losier came across as more feminine, even though she dressed in men’s clothing to play Séibel. The masculinity of Poplavskaya, perhaps enhanced by her oversized jawline’s lack of any shadowing makeup, led to two major issues.

First, Marguerite and Faust’s love scenes were devoid of any passion. The extremely masculine Kaufmann needs to be paired with a feminine counterpart to create believable chemistry.

Secondly, the appearance of a pregnant belly on such a masculine form in Act IV was jarring. Poplavskaya’s costumer should take a closer look at her actor’s rectangular form and adjust the artificial belly so Poplavskaya does not seem like she’s about to topple over.

However, making Poplavskaya a convincing maternal figure requires more than a wardrobe change. Poplavskaya spent the majority of her solo time standing stone-faced, as if her voice alone could convince the audience of her emotions (it couldn’t). Marguerite’s guardian, Marthe Schwerlein (Wendy White), came onstage for the reprisal of the Jewel Song/Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir and easily outshone Poplavskaya with her energy and enthusiasm.

The rest of the cast performed adequately, showing small amounts of emotion at times, but overall, the scenes were stagnant. Pape’s menacing glares looked as if he yearned to be more dramatic but was told to tone it down, causing me to believe McAnuff’s inability to move actors around on a stage caused the stagnation.

Perhaps with a different director and new leading lady the Metropolitan Opera will, one day, successfully produce Gounod’s Faust.

Like Fafner, Lepage’s lame set cannot triumph over Morris’s brilliant voice

What: Wagner’s Siegfried, Live HD Simulcast
When: November 5, 2011
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Running time: 5 ½ hrs, including two intermissions
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Where she saw it: Carousel Center Mall
Encore performance: Not yet determined

Having an epic plot wasn’t epic enough for the Ring Cycle. Feeling that no existing opera house would do for his obscenely huge productions, Wagner built Bayreuth. Perhaps Robert Lepage’s set of angled, computerized panels at the Metropolitan Opera was meant as homage to the great composer, but sadly, the set is a flop.

The multi-million dollar panels are not without their charms (thank goodness for small favors). Several times, we see the forest floor crawling with knarly roots, bugs, and snakes—scenes reminiscent of a Dürer print or a Grimm fairytale. When pre-adolescent Siegfried plays in the forest with Mime in tow, the forest is exposed on panels as they rotate up, giving the impression of zooming in from the sky—quite cinematic. And the reflecting pool in Act I is a fantastic trick.

But overall, the panels constrict the stage space, groan over the orchestra, and provide an obstacle course for the singers. As Siegfried—sung by Jay Hunter Morris—struggles over crisscrossed panels to Brunnhilde, we see that Morris’s journey is realistically difficult. He looked like he was climbing a treacherous water tower. Without the ladder.

It’s a pity that the awkward set pushes mention of Morris to the third paragraph. He was marvelous! His bright voice exceptionally portrayed a confident 17-year old with the brutish strength of a heldentenor. As he titillated listeners while he forged his sword, close-ups showed no trace of sweat (though they revealed light blue eyes, high cheek bones, pink lips, and a petite nose that would have pleased Wagner, no doubt).

Mime, played by Gerhard Siegal, was equally impressive, portraying the twitchy guardian with scraggly hair (if only Danny DeVito could sing…). Both Siegal and Morris are fantastic actors, selling the epic to all who will listen. I was sad to see Mime go in Act II.

Jay Hunter Morris and Fafner in “Siegfried.” Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Fafner’s slaying was perhaps the set’s biggest failure. The dragon’s lair is seen from the outside, and we understand him to live behind a cascading waterfall that resembles the rainbow-enhanced screens in Chinese restaurants. When it’s time for Fafner to show himself, the panels shift upward, revealing what appears to be a papier-mache head wiggling about with glowing yellow eyes. The mismatched computerized forest and dangling dragon were baffling. Not to mention, the moment of Siegfried’s triumph was in the shadow of the raised panels, completely deflating the climax.

Bryn Terfel’s portrayal of the Wanderer was strong, even if he seems to have fewer colors on his palette than one would hope. He was convincingly both majestic and troubled, a treat to listen to.

Eric Owens played Mime’s brother, Alberich, and a richer, deeper voice would be hard to find. His sonorous booms sent chills. Mojca Erdmann occupied the opposite end of the spectrum with a wise and beautiful wood bird, sung from offstage. Her chirping was every bit as enjoyable as it was in Don Giovanni.

Of course, it’s not over ’til the fat lady sings, and she did so beautifully. Deborah Voigt’s strong voice awakens you after 4+ hours of opera, and her chemistry with Morris is delightful and touching. The scene becomes tiresome, though the fault lies more with Wagner and Lepage. Voigt’s last note was a bit shorter than I would have liked, but no harm done.

As with Don Giovanni, Fabio Luisi took fluid tempos, bringing the 6-hour opera home with half an hour to spare. I can’t imagine anyone minded. The orchestra was divine, as always.

Morris’s Siegfried grew over the 3 Acts, subtly discarding youthful pomp for manly authority as he discovered woman. This depth of character was the icing on the cake, propelling him to a truly remarkable status.

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