Faust is one of those archetypal myths of the individual that have haunted us for centuries; it’s likely that this figure of the man who dared to go beyond the limits of the socially and the humanely will remain in our imaginations for many centuries more. Like Don Juan, like Frankenstein, like Lucifer – who was not a man, but nevertheless a shining example of this archetype – Faust continues to fascinate through his pride and his transgression. That’s doubtless the reason Gounod’s Faust was the masterpiece that graced the Metropolitan Opera’s opening in 1983, and the reason why the Met has staged it yet again, also making it a part of its live broadcast to theatres, as well as part of PBS’s THIRTEEN’s <i>Great Performances at the Met</i>.
But, as hostess and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato points out in her introduction to this staging, Faust is a morality tale that’s grown rather creaky since the middle ages. The old story of making a deal with the devil has also been overly popular since the nineteenth century, and consequently, Gounod’s opera needed a bit of an update, provided here by director Des McAnuff. He sets this dark tale in 1945, with Faust as a nuclear physicist and a broken man at the sight of the horrors he’s helped propagate.
Jonas Kaufmann appears on the stage as this worn, cynical and suicidal man in the first act, singing that terrible first word, “Rien” – “nothing.” He calls upon Mephistopheles, who makes his elegant way onto the stage in the form of René Pape, quite the figure of the dandy with a carnation in the buttonhole of his three-piece suit. What follows is a duet of nothing other than seduction, as Mephistopheles offers Faust that which he desires above all else: not knowledge, but youth, “the treasure that contains them all.”
Cue the transformation of Faust into a beautiful young man with a head of Kaufmann’s dark curls, fit to rival a painting of the German Romantics. While his first notes were low and dark, the ensuing courtship of Marguerite allows him to reach new heights of romantic expressiveness, his strong voice blending with Gounod’s luscious orchestration in a way that renders one incoherent with ecstasy. He is seductive enough that one may well forgive Marguerite for surrendering to his temptations, especially after the breathtaking diminuendo of his final “Je t’aime.”
In the meantime, Mephistopheles is in the dark shadow pulling the strings. If Kaufmann wasn’t so good, then René Pape might very well be the star of this show. Pape Mephistopheles is at once sleazy and charming, suave and calculating. Brandishing the cane that completes his elegant attire like a magic wand, he lies, tricks and manipulates the humans whose natures he understands better than they do themselves. Particularly remarkable is his delivery of the “Le Veau d’Or” aria, his low bass adapting itself beautifully to this song of Satan leading a diabolical dance in worship of gold.
But the opera is not his story, just as it is not really Faust’s – it is Marguerite’s. In this version, it is Marina Poplavskaya, with her head of golden hair and her willowy frame, who takes on the role of the naïve woman, at turns in love and in despair, mad and sublime. Her renditions of the more famous arias – such as the “Air des Bijoux” – are, if not spectacularly stunning, at least charming.
All this is presented with the skill and the elegance only the Metropolitan Opera possesses. Modern adaptations are a tricky proposition, but the company brandishes this double-edged sword with skill and aptitude. Both cast and staging contribute to the nobility that makes the stage the domain of the higher passions and the elevated forms of self-expression.
It has yet to be seen whether this particular production will be released on DVD, as is not unusual with many of the Met’s live broadcasts. For the moment, it’s only available through PBS, but I, for one, happily look forward to the day they will take my money in exchange for my own copy of this masterpiece.