Fantastical, gripping, emotional, and never dull, Charles Gounod’s Faust has always been an operatic favorite—but among the tweaks and liberties modern-day performances of opera take, can a modernized retelling do this classic justice? In its second revival under the direction of Des McAnuff (Winner for Best Musical in 2006 for Jersey Boys), Faust returns to the Met this spring where the titular character finds himself in an early 20th Century world, facing quite the original twist: Faust is the man responsible for the atom bomb, and in his old age, he finds himself regretful for the lives his work has cost. The cast of characters are still the same, of course—Faust still pursues his beloved Marguerite, while both ultimately succumb to the treachery enacted by the devil, Méphistophélès—but what is changed in the first act is surprisingly inconsistent throughout the rest of the opera, and it is here that McAnuff’s changes fail to make their full potential.
An opera that maintains its novelty while undergoing a modernization tends to not allow such changes to overwhelm its original story, and it is true that Des McAnuff’s Faust follows suit—yet the issue here is that the slightly revised story is so inconsistent that by Act III, I had forgotten that this version of Faust was supposed to be set in the early 20th Century. The issue with this is that, rather than having Faust just become younger, Méphistophélès actually sends him back to the days of his youth: this is not explicitly stated, but the way the characters are dressed is the revelatory factor. The townspeople are dressed in turn-of-the-century garb, but the giveaway here is what the soldiers are wearing. Dressed in the uniforms that the French army would have worn in World War I, it could be assumed that this version of Faust is set in the 1910s—thus Faust not only decreases his age by thirty-some years, he also goes back in time. Understandably, there is no way this change can be revealed in the opera’s libretto, but McAnuff is unable to express visually to why this change was made. Perhaps there is only one answer, and it all has to do with history: if this version of Faust opens post-World War II, then the theme of war is irrelevant—unfortunately for McAnuff, that is not the case, as Marguerite’s brother Valentin heads off to war during the opera’s progression, and like many directors before him, McAnuff is forced to make an important decision.
His heart is in the right place, I’ll give him that: making Faust into a nuclear physicist with one concrete source of regret allows the audience to empathize with Faust easily, not to mention the fact that his plight is almost recognizable. Aside from Act I, the only moment where McAnuff’s changes return is in the Walpurgis Night scene, where the chorus (repeatedly seen throughout as scientists with clipboards and sunglasses) observes the explosion of the atom bomb. This in itself appears to be a kind of foreshadowing to the opera’s conclusion: traditionally, Faust ends with the now-tainted Marguerite being sent to heaven while Faust himself is damned to hell. But in Act V’s very last moments it is revealed that the entire opera was, in all, actually a dream—we see Faust just as he was in the beginning of Act I, an elderly man in his laboratory, in the moments just after he has ingested the poison that he intends to kill himself with. Whereas Méphistophélès arrives in Act I to stop him, Faust emerges from his hallucination enacted by the poison in Act V barely conscious, and then ultimately, dead.
Des McAnuff’s Faust—which stars Piotr Beczala as Faust, Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite, and John Relyea as Méphistophélès—though messy in its visuals, still is pleasant to the ears. One performance that particularly stands out is Relyea’s: I’ll admit here that I’ve never seen a performance of Faust prior to this production, but I went into the opera knowing Méphistophélès was supposed to be threatening and scary, and Relyea’s Méphistophélès was just that. In this version of the opera, Faust and Méphistophélès are dressed in suits, appearing much like men ready to hit the town or to some fuller extent conquer the world—and while I found nothing exemplary about Beczala’s Faust, it is in his shared scenes with Relyea that we know who the true star of the opera is. Relyea’s rendition of ‘The Golden Calf’—Le veau d’or—is not only sang with the passion and fire of a true operatic villain, but it is also here that this version of Faust achieves its first visual success. Whilst Relyea’s Méphistophélès delivers his aria, the townspeople—giving the scientist chorus a run for their money—respond by dancing with each other in twists and jerks, as if possessed. Bathed in a greenish light, Méphistophélès certainly appears devilish, and his position in the middle of the stage, surrounded by his recruited minions, evoked a certain sense of terror within me; though this fear was somewhat mild, I understood quite quickly that this Méphistophélès was remarkable.
I mentioned before I saw nothing remarkable about Beczala’s Faust; I’ll say again that I’ve never seen this opera before, but the opera does bear its protagonist’s name for a reason. When Faust appears with Méphistophélès, it is Méphistophélès who outshines Faust—perhaps this is the case as Méphistophélès is in a way controlling him, but even when Beczala’s Faust appears all by his lonesome, there is nothing that particularly grabs me about him. The interesting moments in his existence seemed to only be fueled by the presence of other people: Méphistophélès, of course, and then Marina Poplavskaya’s Marguerite. Popslavskaya herself seems to almost be challenging Relyea: her performance of Marguerite is quite different than any other female operatic character I’ve seen, and perhaps this has something to do with with Faust’s plot. Whereas in the original opera Marguerite appears to Faust as a spinster, she is introduced as a scientist in Faust is lab, and then later stands out as a woman bearing a rose. It is from this Faust declares his love for her, and with the help of Méphistophélès, decides to pursue her; thus, Faust spends a great deal of the opera pursuing Marguerite, and it from this that Marguerite distinctly fuels Faust’s plot. Between acts, a projection of her emotionally changing face is projected on the stage’s drawn curtains, in a fashion best described as a marriage between The Wizard of Oz and Dr. Strangelove. How Marguerite changes in mood is perhaps an easy way for the lost audience member to figure out where in the opera the characters are; this may or may not be a side effect from Des McAnuff’s messy direction, but if Piotr Beczala’s Faust dulls the opera, and John Relyea’s Méphistophélès livens things up, then it is Poplavskaya’s Marguerite who actually moves the plot along, and allows the opera to tell its story. This combination of characters is, in fact, successful. Faust is such a popular and interesting opera because its characters are very different from each other and from characters in other operas; their personalities are very distinct (even Faust himself, who I am not completely sure is supposed to be dull, but if he is, then so be it—Méphistophélès and Marguerite can just further prove these differences), and their stories intertwine to create its tragedy. With the supporting characters of Siébel (Julie Boulianne) and Valentin (Alexey Markov), it makes it easier for one to understand where the soap opera got its name—despite its directorial flaws, Faust is saved by its performances and story. The drama is incredibly fascinating and the sorrow it brings is unforgettable. It’s almost as if no matter what you can do to this opera, there’ll still be something to redeem it.
Did I like this version of Faust? I left the Met thinking I did, and I still do. I’m very much intrigued by Des McAnuff’s decision to modernize the opera, and I do think setting it between both World Wars is, if anything, the modernization that makes the most sense. The opera does fail in some sense due to the inconsistencies, and I think the whole atom bomb thing could have found its way into the plot a few more times. Still, the one thing I’m sure about the most is this: while many operas have the tendency to bore me (I’ll admit freely I’ve dozed off a time or two during other performances), Faust is one of those rare operas where each moment something exciting or intriguing is occurring. No opera can be perfect, and McAnuff’s Faust, of course, isn’t—but if an opera can be lively and cater to a variety of tastes, including those of young audiences, then it is technically a success. To take risks in the way that McAnuff did is commendable, and while the final product might have been a bit off, I can still say I enjoyed Faust very much, and that it is one of the better operas I’ve seen so far. If Des McAnuff were to direct another opera, I’d be very interested to see it—if not for the sake of opera itself, then to see what McAnuff has up his sleeve this time.
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