I’d been looking forward to the Met’s new production of Faust, starring Jonas Kaufmann (sigh!), Rene Pape and Marina Poplavskaya, for months, but the performance I saw last night can only be described as regietheater run amok. Des McAnuff, who directed this production, should be forced to return his fee—and then some.
Regietheater, translated from the German as “director’s theater,” is that approach to opera whereby the director unleashes his id in a “re-examination” of a familiar work. European directors have notoriously been indulging themselves this way for years. The end result frequently resembles a wrestling match with their issues, usually: (a) mommy or daddy (b) the Catholic Church (c) the strictures of society (d) the political landscape of Europe or (e) all of the above. So it’s no wonder that an opera like Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, with its political assassination plot and theme of illicit love, has so frequently been thrown under the bus in the name of regietheater (The Magic Flute, with its examination of darkness and enlightenment, not to mention brotherhood, is another favorite target). We’ve had Calixto Bieto’s version, with the opening chorus of conspirators sitting on toilets, reading newspapers with their pants down around their ankles, followed by a gem of a production directed by Johann Kresnik, featuring the World Trade Center and a chorus of naked senior citizens wearing Mickey Mouse masks (You can thank me later for not subjecting you to the full frontal photo).
For the Met, Des McAnuff has retold Faust as the story of an atomic scientist who, after witnessing the end result of his life’s work, commits suicide by drinking poison. But in that split second before he dies, he flashes back to World War I and his encounter with Marguerite. His conduit to the past is Mephistopheles, who in what is actually a rather neat idea, is presented not necessarily as the Devil (capital “D”) but as Mr. Hyde to Faust’s Dr. Jekyll. The two characters are identically dressed throughout the opera, the only difference being Mephistopheles’ red (of course) boutonniere and tie to Faust’s white. While we’re on the subject, I enjoy modern dress opera as long as it consistently serves the story. I loved Peter Sellars’s version of the Mozart-DaPonte trilogy, and fail to understand the Met patrons I heard a couple of seasons ago kvetching about the new production of La Traviata, with Violetta in red stilettos and a giant clock onstage ticking away her life. I don’t care if the characters in Faust are costumed like the crew on the Starship Enterprise if the composer’s intentions are served.
Here’s my problem with what’s on view at the Met: We’re stuck in Faust’s atomic lab for the duration of the opera. The set consists of iron girders, ramps and spiral staircases, and its sterility flies in the face of Gounod’s lush music. And while I don’t think McAnuff intended this, the large projections of the faces of Faust and Marguerite are creepy as hell, especially when they blink or move their heads, and should be dispensed with ASAP. There are major questions of consistency here: why did Marguerite first appear as a lab-coated scientist in the opening scene? And aren’t we over the A-bomb as metaphor yet? (By the way, unlike Doctor Atomic, McAnuff’s Faust features both Fat Man and Little Boy. Double the guilt, double the fun!) In focusing on The Concept, McAnuff straightjacketed both Jonas and Popsy. There should be real heat at the end of the garden scene (ooops–no garden, but we did get projections of roses) and a sense of Marguerite’s helplessness in yielding to Faust. It just wasn’t there, and it’s a director’s job to be certain it is. Similarly, I missed the degree of desperation I expect during the final trio. Ditto.
Musically speaking the results were variable. Rene Pape was a wonderful Mephistopheles, both vocally and dramatically, and it was only when he was front and center that the opera came to life. I especially enjoyed the way he made the crowd dance during “Le Veau D’Or” (think “Day-O” during the dinner party scene of Beetlejuice), and his doing a Fred Astaire in the midst of his salacious serenade was a marvelous touch. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the conductor, was excellent, and no tenor could have asked for a more sympathetic accompaniment during “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure.” Speaking of which, Jonas Kaufmann produced a rather spectacular diminuendo during this aria last night, though there were a few rough patches in his performance. He was a bit slow warming up, and I’m not too crazy about the pianissimo tone he produces. Poplavskaya has the notes, but something seems to be lacking….a greater degree of vulnerability, perhaps? If so, I tend to think this was McAnuff’s fault, not hers, because the production certainly didn’t so her any favors.
Ultimately the Met’s new production of Faust is Exhibit A of the evils of regietheater. It puts The Concept first while the music is relegated to the back of the bus. And the music must be served first–after all, it’s opera.