Pollyanna be damned
TONIGHT’S FAUST FROM THE METROPOLITAN OPERA IN NEW YORK IS ONE OF THE WORST, STUPIDEST, MOST PERVERSE PRODUCTIONS I HAVE EVER SEEN AND I HOPE THE DIRECTOR’S NEXT PROJECT INVOLVES CARDBOARD, DENTAL FLOSS, AND MARKER PENS..
I HAAAAAAAAAATED IT. AND I AM HAVING PROBLEMS HERE TONIGHT NOT USING LANGUAGE.
Oh yes, and there will be spoilers. Ironic in this instance. . . .
There are two ‘worst’ aspects to tonight’s large expensive cowpat. The first is that Gounod’s FAUST is a big, soppy romantic wallow, which either does or does not go fatally over the ‘sentimental’ line, depending on the point of soppiness saturation in your own personality. I love it. It’s one of my desert island operas (with most of Verdi, about half of Mozart and one or two Rossini and Donizetti and . . .). But it needs to be treated gently. Try to take it too far out of its milieu at your peril. This is to a great or lesser degree true of anything stageable, I would imagine, but opera generally is to my eye/mind/ear already dancing on the edge of irrecoverable silliness, and it’s just not a good idea to distract an audience from the glory of the music to vexed and vexatious questions of plot and continuity. IT’S ABOUT THE MUSIC.* And that’s really all it’s about. Any director who doesn’t get this is a moron.
There are a lot of morons out there. I’m sufficiently hard-line about this that I further think that anyone responsible for a production that calls too much attention to itself is an up-himself prat.** I know the arguments about ‘freshness’. I think they’re mostly bunk. I think that the majority of the opera-going audience doesn’t have the chance to get tired of non-controversial productions because due to time, money, other things in their lives and how many operas are performed in a given year they don’t see them often enough to get tired. I think that most of the excuse for ‘exciting’ new productions is SELF INDULGENCE on the part of the theatre admin. Bored with straightforward productions that give the singers the best possible chance to bring the audience to its knees? Go sell washing machines. And don’t let the door bang you in the butt on your way out.
I don’t even know where to begin. And I have to go to bed so I can ring bells tomorrow morning. But here’s the second ‘worst’ about tonight’s show: it was an absolute dream cast. Jonas Kaufmann as Faust***, Rene Pape as Mephistopheles and Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite. Gods. What they could do with this music. And they mostly even managed it, despite very long odds against, like running a marathon on one leg and blindfolded. Some of the close-up stuff did work a treat—the famous act-three seduction is pretty great, for example.† But the bullsh—I mean, the poor creative decisions of this production kept getting in the way.
So. Anyway. FAUST is a big, gorgeous, soppy, 19th century tragedy, with melodies to die for and buckets of emotional melodrama. Gounod laid it in 16th century Germany, with probably about as much historical accuracy as Puccini lavished on MADAMA BUTTERFLY, so I’m not terribly fussed about slavishly following the libretto about this. But the director has decided that his Faust is one of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. What? Mind you, you only know this because Joyce Di Donato tells you, as tonight’s broadcast host. There’s no particular clue to the initial backdrop of an anonymous ruined building, a vaguely laboratory-looking stage, and some limping, blackened people who cross Faust’s path. (He doesn’t seem too perturbed by them.) These unidentifiable victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do however have a strange similarity to the blackened, jerking devils of Walpurgis Night. Er, why? And if those are WWII uniforms in act two, I’m Pippi Longstocking. Although even if they are . . . wait a minute . . . this is after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs? Then who are these soldiers and where’s the war?
And what is the giant puppet-soldier about?
And why does a bloody death’s-head in a cape come on stage and glower at Mephistopheles at the end of some act or other, I forget?
And if that’s supposed to be a mushroom-shaped cloud at the beginning of act five (I think), how about if you locate a better piece of film for it?
I’m getting ahead of myself.†† I acknowledge that what to do on stage while the overture unrolls can be a problem, but how about . . . nothing? This is the orchestra’s moment. Let’s listen to them. But we have Kaufmann lurching around looking like a young man wearing a slightly greyed-over moustache, and a brief cameo appearance by some refugees. Until Kaufmann started singing it was BORING—and there’s nothing wrong with the music.
The basic set had metal stairs with lots of open mesh walkways running up either side of the stage—like the sort of thing you see in factories and military installations and nuclear power plants. It had nothing whatsoever to do with what was going on, although I suppose it provided one of those theatrical grails, Different Levels. It was a daft place for Marguerite to fall finally into Faust’s arms however—but the worst in that scene was the Thing that Ate Schenectady-sized red roses that bloom up the back screen on Mephistopheles’ command. WHAT? WHAT’S THAT ABOUT? WHAT’S THAT GOT TO DO WITH THE ATOM BOMB, IF WE’RE RIFFING ON THE ATOM BOMB HERE? Arrrrrrgh. And speaking of Mephistopheles—Pape was good. He had the authority and just the right sneer—as well as the voice. Faust is a tick, so you need someone with some charm as well as the voice, and Kaufmann (ahem) has these; and what I’m coming to like best about Poplavskaya—aside from the voice—is that she gives dignity to these awful die-away soprano-heroine roles her voice dooms her to.†††
I really thought they might manage to wreck the end, it’s so badly staged—gibbergibbergibber no I want to go to bed, it’s not worth ruining a working Sunday for—but when Poplavskaya, on her knees, looks up and starts in on her final ‘blessed angels, save me’ music, it came together for me anyway. IN SPITE of her then climbing some of that ugly laboratory ladder toward what we assume is heaven—in spite of the chorus standing around in lab coats singing ‘Christ is risen’—what? Speaking of yanking something out of its context, this is just ghastly—and then Mephistopheles sucks Faust down into hell. Er . . . that’s not how the opera ends. He’s saved too, through his pity for Marguerite, and remorse at his part in her ruin. So you’re staring blankly at the stage and . . . the phony old guy from the beginning, with the moustache, reappears up through the floor, and this time he does drink the poison that Faust was about to drink at the beginning, except Mephistopheles showed up and promised him fame, fortune and babes. He drinks the poison and dies. WHAT? HOW IS THIS SAVED? By any context this opera is capable of fitting into, suicide means you’re damned.
GIBBERGIBBERGIBBERGIBBER. But I really have to go to bed. . . .
* * *
* Just to be sure my colours are nailed to the mast here, I have no time for people who want to talk about opera as drama with singing. Very very frelling few operas are well-made plays under all the twiddly bits. You go to an opera, you park your intellect—not all your brain, but the logical part—at the door. I’ve talked here before about the emotional reality of opera—I can forgive almost any absurdity as long as the big numbers give me a scalp-tingling rush.
** Or herself, of course, but tonight’s prat was a bloke.
*** Be still my heart. What has happened lately, that there are suddenly hunky opera singers?^ When I was still young enough to have fantasies, who was there? Luciano Pavarotti?
^ And what’s a little drool among friends.
† Not that this would have anything to do with my attitude toward Kaufmann.
†† I PARTICULARLY hated the ending.
††† Although I have a little rant I do about Marguerite: she’s got the devil against her, for pity’s sake. She was never going to win. The particular challenge to Marguerite is to let her go mad convincingly. She has plenty of excuse—her lover has run off leaving her pregnant, her brother, her only family, curses her for a slut with his last breath. Nice guy. Then when she goes to the church to pray she sees and hears devils. Well, she is seeing and hearing devils. It’s in the libretto. So it’s not surprising she kills her baby—and a half decent production brings this out—infanticides generally not being wildly sympathetic.^ One of the WORST bits of tonight’s big ugly redolent mess is the baby-murder, which happens on stage, with the pacing and the emotional resonance of buying a newspaper at the corner shop.
^ Although Hetty Sorrel and Tess of the D’Urbervilles both come to mind.
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