Sunday, December 11, 2011

Toasting the Death of our Illusions. A Review of Faust from Met Live in HD

If you heard the Live in HD Faust production you will know what I am talking about:

Je T'aime!

Jonas Kaufmann, as Faust, blew us all back with a full-throated high B that he was able to control over an extended diminuendo before completing the gesture to land a tenth lower. It was during a G major harmony during the lover's interlude late in Act II when the Faust and Marguerite fix one another in the midst of the infamous waltz chorus. [The passage is at the bottom of page 92 of the Schirmer vocal score]. The sound and color of that high B as he shifted gears was simply awesome. Kaufman was the Faust of surprises. Familiar as the role is, he found ways to imprint new possibilities. He was that kind of Faust.

The Des McAnuff production was classical in most regards. Yes, the time frame was set in the 20th century, but the feel of narrative unfolding with its long vocal portraits set against motion created through genre changes and the altered perception of its characters was almost conservative. Why did it work?

The McAnuff production made it appear that Faust was going back in time specifically to meet Marguerite somewhat akin to the concept of the book "Somewhere in Time" by Richard Matheson (which was made into that popular movie from 1980 starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour).

It was great to hear the Walpurgis Night episode at the beginning of Act V. Faust is such a long opera that most productions opt to cut this passage because it is irrelevant to most stagings. The McAnuff production was centered around ideas from this passage. The "blazing flashes, cold as ice," and "dark to light in an instant," in the text seemed natural in the context of atomic science.

The staircases on either side of the stage were lit vertically and each began to take on the appearance of a double helix. "Come, let us toast the death of my illusions," sang Kaufmann as Faust. In this production the aging scientist we met in the first act woke up from a dream that was the opera itself, and collapsed onto the stage dead as the curtain fell. The setting never left the laboratory scene of Act One, and though the setting was transformed throughout the opera the stasis of the physical setting both reinforced the dream scenario and made the passages of time portrayed in the music itself seem even more surrealistic.

I was interested to hear McAnuff indicate that his production concept was influenced by Rita Bronowski, who died this last September at the age of 92. She was wife of the anthropoligist Jacob Bronowski, known to most people through his impressive and passionately argued series "The Ascent of Man." Rita was a long-time resident of the San Diego area and was involved in local theatre--especially the La Jolla Playhouse.

"I was always struck by a story of [Jacob] visiting Nagasaki," said McAnuff in one of the intermission interviews, "and deciding never to practice physics again. And I thought this was a sort of quintessential historical moment." The McAnuff production allowed us to focus on elements of this opera that are often misplaced or underscored. "Come, let us toast the death of my illusions."

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