NEW YORK - Though the durability of the Faust legend has lent itself to endless interpretations through the ages, can we assume that a climactic atomic blast - a reward for subcontracting the devil - is a new wrinkle?
Certainly, the computer-generated mushroom cloud at Tuesday's Metropolitan Opera opening assured that Gounod's operatic version of Faust wouldn't seem like its dowdy self in a hypertheatrical production by Des McAnuff, who made his name on Broadway. Nor would the music fall into cheap sentimentality with Philadelphia Orchestra music director-designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin's brisk tempos and sound dramatic strategy.
The starry cast, headed by Jonas Kaufmann, Marina Poplavskaya, and Rene Pape, was lustily applauded despite some vocal miscasting, and Nézet-Séguin was received with customary cheers. But when McAnuff and company arrived onstage, the volume of the applause abruptly went down. What a pity.
Though radical updating rarely works 100 percent, the production was provocative in the best ways and had a theatricality that this B-level opera often lacks. The Dec. 10 simulcast in Philadelphia-area movie theaters is likely to be an eyeful - spiral staircases on each side of the stage framing computer graphics conveying the supernatural mutation of reality.
The audience will also be led into easily missed subtleties that can gave this Faust staying power in my psyche. The story of the learned Faust's selling his soul for youth and beauty goes beyond just updating the opera into a munitions factory suggesting the World War II-era Manhattan Project that delivered the first atomic bomb. The pre-transformation Faust is more dull and plain than infirm. The post-transformation Faust is dashing, vivid - and dressed identically to the dapper, white-suited Mephistopheles. Yet his love object, Marguerite, signals a retreat into the plainness of his past life, suggesting pleasures he didn't notice before. That's just one possible meaning.
As the opera intensifies, the anguish-ravaged Marguerite drowns her baby in a basin of holy water. The hellish demons who torture her are lab technicians in white coats. The choreography by Kelly Devine suggests people possessed by outside forces - dancing in tongues, you might say. And then there's the bomb. Was scientific immortality part of Faust's satanic contract? It's a powerful metaphor, suggesting that the bomb's invention was mankind usurping power that should belong only to higher forces.
If nothing else, such theatrical provocation is likely to maintain one's attention when vocal casting isn't all it could be. Kaufmann always delivers vocally and dramatically, but his Germanic tenor wasn't right for the more svelte vocal lines of French opera, even when he imaginatively changed vocal color for the more tender love scenes. As Marguerite, Poplavskaya was a ceaselessly endearing presence, though she didn't catch fire theatrically until her character was corrupted - and then was so vocally overtaxed she didn't have much left for Act V. Russell Braun (Valentin) and Michele Losier (Siebel) were terrific in some scenes but not in others. Rene Pape, though, is one of the great Mephistos - theatrically, vocally, and linguistically - you'll ever encounter. Period.
Nézet-Séguin has made important debuts conducting works that some ambitious conductors won't and shouldn't go near. (Michael Tilson Thomas, for one, made his staged-opera debut in Faust, but with little to offer.) However, Nézet-Séguin happily looks beyond the opera's surface and conjures a theatrical integrity that made his performances a feat of reclamation. In Faust, the purely narrative moments were bolstered by his ability to give the orchestral commentary an almost three-dimensional, balletic presence; your ears didn't lapse into routine listening based on many past encounters. Thus, when the big tunes arrived, Nézet-Séguin didn't need to oversell them to get everybody's attention back. Time and again, one heard him finding untapped substance in Gounod's bass lines. He indulged his singers a bit too much during the love duets. But saying no to a cast with this much charisma is foolhardy. And Nézet-Séguin is anything but that.