If you could ask your great-grandparents, they would very likely tell you that Gounod’s Faust was the most popular opera ever written. It certainly seemed that way years ago at the Metropolitan Opera, which opened its doors in 1883 with this very work and performed it so frequently thereafter that the Met started being called the Faustspielhaus, a pun on the name of Wagner’s sacred festival shrine in Bayreuth. The opera has fallen on lean times lately, and if the Met has not completely neglected the dear old thing over the past 50 years, the company has done it few favors, at least in my day. I recall some impressive singers in casts from my distant youth—Jussi Björling, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Nicolai Gedda, Victoria de los Angeles, Eleanor Steber, Cesare Siepi—but the three previous productions since 1953 were all unpersuasive and hard on the eyes, despite stagings by such distinguished theater names as Peter Brook, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Harold Prince.
Well, the Met is yet again giving Faust a fresh look. Andrei Serban is the current director and Santo Loquasto the designer, a team that continues the recent company custom of putting the opera into the hands of practiced theater men with a taste for experiment. This time, however, few chances are taken or drastic reinterpretations proposed, and the Met now has a Faust that Great-Grandmother would have no trouble recognizing. Nothing wrong with that: If we have learned anything, it’s that Gounod composed a skillfully constructed but conventional Romantic French opera with an attractive score that gives singers every opportunity to shine. That is the essence of Faust, no more, no less, and fancy directorial conceits that hark back to Goethe’s epic drama, or look for contemporary relevance that simply isn’t there, are doomed.
Even at that, Loquasto’s sets have their own quirky charm, playing gentle riffs on the piece’s picturesque medieval setting—an old philosopher’s dusty study, a playful village fair, a maiden’s garden at springtime, a Gothic cathedral, even winged angels to welcome Marguerite into heaven—by suggesting other times and other places without being either obtrusive or excessively cartoonish. I especially like the industrial-age touches in old Faust’s necromantic lair and the soldiers’ French-operetta military flavor, even if the story is supposed to take place in sixteenth-century Germany. For Serban, the opera is clearly all about Méphistophélès, a protean character who runs the show even when he’s not onstage. A flashy part is now even flashier, with a costume change in every scene. First he’s a contemporary boulevardier in top hat and tails, then an old-fashioned devil in red tights and feathered cap, later a naked reptile man complete with tail, and finally a black-shirted hoodlum.
Whoever sings Méphistophélès in this production is automatically going to be the star, and René Pape has no trouble at all in taking full command. The wonder of it is that Pape does his dirty work with such grace, macho charm, and easy efficiency. There is not a trace of the hammy mugging or creaky athletics that so many operatic basses bring to the role, creating a tiresome devil that seems more a minor irritation than a dangerous force of evil. And of course Pape is in magisterial control of the notes as well, rejoicing in a silken-smooth, wide-ranging instrument that automatically adjusts to whatever deviltry, intimately seductive or terrifyingly cosmic, that the music suggests.
Soile Isokoski is also a joy as Marguerite, her cool, unblemished soprano more than sufficiently agile to negotiate the florid “Jewel Song” as well as bringing an appealing throb to such tender moments as the girl’s love apostrophe to the night or tender memories of her dead little sister. Roberto Alagna is a dashingly handsome Faust with French style in his blood, although I hear very little tonal magic in his now rather leathery tenor. Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Valentin) and Kristine Jepson (Siébel) bring plenty of vocal glamour to their short roles, and James Levine, no less, is on the podium conducting his first Met Faust. I suspect he is doing so more to add another notch on his belt rather than to fulfill any urgent love affair with the opera, since he conducts the score with so little feeling for its shape and color. No matter. Faust is mainly about singing, and the Met’s present cast is the strongest in years.