‘Whenever science makes a discovery, the devil grabs it while the angels are debating the best way to use it.’ Turn the scientist into Faust – his field of study nuclear physics – the devil into a dapper, white-suited gent and the angels into lab-coated technicians with clipboards and you have the basis of Des McAnuff’s updating of Gounod’s Faust. Nobody was hugely surprised that English National Opera’s recent Eugene Onegin played on the safe side, seeing that it’s destined for the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Yet this controversial production of Faust, traditionally seen as something of a sturdy Victorian warhorse, is from the same ENO stable. I entirely missed its run at the Coliseum, so came to it afresh via this Met cinema screening. Transported to a mid-20th century laboratory where Faust is an aged atomic scientist, regretting his life’s work, McAnuff’s staging is cold, clinical and ultimately confused, but can still pack a powerful dramatic punch at certain moments.
The director’s concept initially seemed to have legs. Faust as a Robert Oppenheimer-type figure, wearing a heavy guilt complex at his creation, wishes for death and reaches for a bottle of poison. In Gounod’s original, he is averted by the sudden appearance of Méphistophélès; here he takes the poison and what follows turns out to be his deathbed hallucinations, transported back to his youth, which is now set in the First World War. After signing the devilish pact, Faust becomes Méphistophélès’ Doppelgänger; they dress identically (apart from him sporting a white rose to the devil’s red) from white suits and Panama hats to dinner jackets to pin-stripes. The atomic bomb imagery completely disappears until Méphistophélès curses Marguerite in church, where lab technicians take on the role of the angelic choir and we get a huge mushroom cloud projected onto the backdrop. After Marguerite’s ascent to heaven, via a giant staircase, we witness Faust’s final breath, accompanied by a nuclear flash. Yet how we’re supposed to relate the horrors of Faust the atomic scientist to Marguerite’s fate is tricky. What her pregnancy and redemption have to do with Faust’s angst about his scientific work is never made clear. Surely the whole point of Gounod’s Faust is a religious one; good versus evil, angels and demons, redemption and damnation, but throwing science into the mix, albeit retaining the religious iconography, muddies the dramatic waters.
McAnuff’s handling of the WW1 setting included some deft touches; Marguerite no longer spins, but sews at her Singer sewing machine. The Soldiers’ chorus sees troops returning from the horrors of the trenches; posing for a photographer, the flashbulb sets off shellshock in one poor victim. Peter Mumford’s lighting and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ video projections (a favourite ENO trick at present) dominate the staging, adding colour but not warmth to Robert Brill’s tiered, monochrome sets, where two spiral staircases frame the stage. We see roses bloom, blue skies and numerous projections of Marguerite, who appears before her allotted entrance first via video, then as a lab technician in old Faust’s laboratory. Given their later (earlier) appearance as angels, is she supposed to be one of the heavenly host sent to watch over Faust? Her appearance is otherwise mysterious at this point as she isn’t acknowledged by any of the other characters.
Méphistophélès has a few magic tricks up his sleeve too – he turns the water cooler into a red wine dispenser and sparks flash from his fingertips on his first entry. His demons appear like zombies, but are perhaps meant to be victims of a nuclear attack. He appears shocked by the sudden appearance of a giant puppet of the Grim Reaper, but it’s unclear why. Surely Death follows Méphistophélès around like a shadow? The Walpurgis Night scene is let down by the non-appearance of the ‘ladies of antiquity’ mentioned in the libretto. Just where had Cleopatra and pals got to? Instead, a pair of eyes dominates the backdrop, eventually revealed to belong to Marguerite. At the end of the Church scene (placed last in Act IV), Marguerite swiftly gives birth to her child and drowns it in the font, though as we are still in a lab setting, that font is merely a sink. It’s a good dramatic touch, all but completely spoiled by the addition of wailing baby noises, which just drew titters from the audience.
The trio of stars assembled for this production sounded on top form for most of the night. Forgiving the fact that his Old Faust looked like a prematurely-aged Omar Sharif as Dr Zhivago, Jonas Kaufmann sang gloriously in the title role. His heavily baritonal tenor had sufficient weight, while his steely top gleams and glints. It was a pity that he chose to belt out the top C in ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’ instead of beginning softly, as on his Decca recording of the aria. Once or twice, he came dangerously close to crooning, but his diminuendo in the finale of Act II was breath-taking, as was the exquisite ppp on ‘éternelle’ in the love duet with Marina Poplavskaya’s Marguerite. Dramatically, however, he was strangely detached and uncharismatic, especially early on, which surprised me as he is usually extremely strong on characterisation. On the evidence of the waltz, his dancing wouldn’t earn many points on Strictly either!
Poplavskaya is a terrific actress and she demonstrated the huge transformation in Marguerite’s character with great skill. As previously seen in London, she ‘does mad/ delusional’ extremely well. Vocally, she was secure on her shimmering top notes, although there was an element of brittleness and ever so careful placement about them, while her tone can be inconsistent. French diction was, naturally enough, tinged with Slavic undertones. She delivered the spinning ballad about the king of Thule beautifully and her Jewel Song was coquettish, with dizzying coloratura, although McAnuff didn’t give her anything much to actually do. Indeed, his direction in the big arias was disappointing – Méphistophélès’ ‘Le veau d’or’ was something of a non-event. She got to wear some pretty frumpy frocks, courtesy of Paul Tazewell. Shorn of her golden locks as the imprisoned Marguerite of the final act, Poplavskaya’s portrayal was gripping.
The devil may not always get the best tunes via Gounod’s pen, but René Pape dominated proceedings from the off. His gentleman-devil was the suave, affable kind, seeming to have enormous fun with the role. Pape’s Méphistophélès is very close to Bryn Terfel’s in phrasing and tone, although he possesses a blacker bass to plumb the depths vocally to effortless effect. I didn’t feel an enormous sense of danger from his devil, however, until the church scene, where his black mood matched his bass voice. In ‘O nuit, étends sur eux ton ombre’ he delivered a commanding, seductive call for night to envelop the lovers. ‘Vous qui faites l’endormie’ had the heavy sarcasm required, though less of the demonic laughter expected.
As Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, Russell Braun was very fine. His aria ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’, arguably the opera’s greatest number, was impressive, Braun coping with the long-breathed legato admirably, although his vibrato is troubling. He and Kaufmann also managed a pretty convincing sword fight and he delivered a touching death scene as well. Michèle Losier was a charming Siébel and Jonathan Beyer was splendid in the brief role of Wagner.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is making impressions everywhere these days. Swiftly after the curtain dropped on this matinee performance, he was dashing off to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra as their soon-to-be Music Director and he’s in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s easy to hear why – he drew elegant playing from the Met Orchestra, with finessed phrasing and transparent balancing of different departments. Once or twice, as in ‘Salut!’ and the love duet, he tended to slam the brakes too hard, but generally this was an impressive account of Gounod’s score. On the basis of this, I’d love to hear him conduct Ravel’s L'Enfant et les sortilèges, or Massenet’s operas.
Your reaction to McAnuff’s production will depend on whether you want what is occasionally gripping theatre or a treacly Victorian relic? How far is his clinical staging at odds with the lush, romantic music? Which serves Gounod’s music better is arguable, as is McAnuff believe about whether the plot is about Christian salvation or not. You could argue that Gounod’s music doesn’t sit comfortably alongside shell-shocked soldiers and nuclear bombs, but when music and staging combine effectively, as in Mephisto’s condemnation of Marguerite in the church scene, it works very well indeed. For those who complain that Met productions are safe and dull, this is the perfect riposte.
Photographs © Ken Howard