Last weeks ‘live’ relay of Rodelinda had some great singing and musical direction, but little in the way of real drama or style – Saturday evening’s Faust, in complete contrast, had it all. A vivid, thought-through, meaningful production, positively historic singing from the ‘hero’ down to the chorus and orchestral playing under Yannick Nézet-Séguin which raised this sentimental piece of tosh to music of the highest level. In fact, that was the overall direction of the evening, with Jonas Kaufmann and Marina Poplavskaya singing ‘O nuit d’amour’ as though it were ‘O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’.
It’s been great fun reading all the gruesome reviews of this production, from the sniffy ones of the ENO version to the affronted diatribes in response to this Met outing. I was with the Upper West Side on the ludicrous Ring, but have to part company in this case. Des McAnuff’s notion of placing the story in the twentieth century, with the Doctor as a bitterly regretful atomic scientist made complete sense to me, and Robert Brill’s set brought it to life in every scene. The premise was that no matter where Faust roamed or what he did, he could never escape from his laboratory, nor could he evade the part of his own nature which is expressed in Méphistophèlés. The concept was carried through with absolute commitment by the cast, none of whom displayed the slightest hint of discomfort with it.
Faust is one of the many roles which Jonas Kaufmann seems ‘born to play’ – it’s hard to imagine a more contrasting assumption than this one with his peerless Werther or Lohengrin, yet he inhabited it as naturally as he wore Paul Tazewell’s stylish suits. His opening soliloquy was a master-study in dramatic control, ‘Maudites, la science, la prière et la foi!’ a searingly bitter lament and ‘Salut, Demeure, chaste et pure’ not merely a showpiece but the revelation of the character’s tainted soul, even though the high C was just a touch effortful on this occasion.
‘O nuit d’amour’ showed us that the ‘golden age’ if it ever existed, is not gone forever – every word replete with longing, and ‘Les cieux dans nos âmes’ approached without even a hint of an intrusive aspirate. Kaufmann’s French diction is so flawless that even a native speaker – as I happen to be – could not fault it. German and English native speakers generally have trouble with singing words like ‘pénètre’ and ‘épanouir’ but not this guy – salut.
Marina Poplavskaya’s French is not perfect, but she matches Kaufmann in just about every other respect. The trailer showing the ‘Love Duet’ – actually just the not-exactly-loving end of it – does not do her justice at all, having been made, one assumes, on a day when she was not at her best. Here, she sang the ‘Jewel song’ with brilliant coloratura yet vulnerable expression, equalled Kaufmann’s ardour to perfection in the duets, and even achieved the rare distinction of bringing a tear to my eye at ‘Je reprendrais bien tout cela!’ – something that hasn’t happened since I saw the death of Kaufmann’s Werther, for which, a heart of stone and so on.
René Pape has one of the most beautiful bass voices on the operatic stage, and his Mèphistophélès was a class act in every way, from his debonair manner to his unctuously persuasive singing – this was the devil as suaveness personified, and it worked perfectly. Pape’s Hans Sachs is eagerly awaited.
Russell Braun was a wonderful Valentin, ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ very finely sung, and his denunciation of his sister absolutely wrenching. Michèle Losier completely failed to irritate me as Siébel – an achievement no other has managed in the part – and Wendy White’s Marthe was a treasurable assumption of a sometimes ungrateful role. The chorus sang superbly, whether as white-coated angels or war-weary soldiers.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin has spectacularly lived up to the promise he showed when he won the Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2009, in the ‘Young Artists’ category – not only has he become Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, but he is making a name for himself at the Met, and you could hear why. His musical direction is ambitious – that is to say, he drives the music with brawn rather than skating around it, and he does not regard the role of his players as merely background music to the singers, whilst still giving them sympathetic support. It’s a superb orchestra, with strength in every section – the Met is fortunate to have developed such a presence in the pit.
This was a ‘live’ showing but if you missed it you can catch it again in the ‘Encore’ series – it’s at the IMAX on Monday 12th at 13.15, and at various other venues this month, including the Richmond Curzon on December 23rd.