When the Met brochure came out last spring and I went through deciding what to attend, I hadn't paid attention to Gounod's "Faust." It was not on my priority list. But then I learned a few months ago that although Yannick Nezet-Seguin was the announced conductor for this new production, my friend Pierre Vallet would be filling in for him on Saturday night, December 17, thus making his Metropolitan Opera conducting debut. I quickly recruited my regular music & theater-going companion and we purchased tickets in our favorite location, the dress circle. But a night that should be memorable for the debut — and it was a splendid debut — will more likely be noted for the accident that occurred on stage in the middle of Act III.
"Faust" is a 5-act opera, played by the Met with two intermissions, before and after Act III, which is the longest of the acts. In the middle of Act III, there is a point where Mephistopheles and Marthe enter together. In this staging, that entry is made on a platform stage right, reached by stairs behind the set. Last night, just shortly before this entrance was to occur, at a time when that side of the stage was dark, the attention being focused on the platform stage left occupied by Faust and Marguerite, there was a sudden crashing sound from the right, followed by Mephistopheles, standing at the rear of the platform, turning to face stage front calling out "Curtain, Curtain." The orchestra came to a halt and the curtain came down. A Met staff member came out front, first to announce that everybody should stay seated, then a second time to announce that Wendy White, portraying Marthe, had suffered a fall, and there would be an "early" intermission.
As the story later was reported, the connection in the set between the staircase and the platform had broken as Ms. White was ascending for her entrance, and she fell 8 feet to the floor of the stage. She was attended by the house doctor and sent off to the hospital for tests, and her understudy, Theodora Hanslowe, was prepared to assume the role after this unscheduled intermission. And the show eventually went on. Ms. White was reportedly "OK" — i.e., not seriously injured — according to early reports. They picked up Act III approximately where they left off, then had a slightly abbreviated intermission, then completed Acts IV and V.
One hopes the news reports about the incident don't overshadow the musical news of the evening, Pierre Vallet's excellent leadership of the performance, for which he had participated in the musical preparation in anticipation of taking this performance. Maestro Vallet conducted "Faust" earlier in the season in Barcelona and was well-prepared to take the podium. He has been working at the Met in helping to prepare performances for many years, and the opportunity to conduct should have been provided earlier. One hopes that the Met assigns future dates to him. Of course, I'm biased as a friend, but one need only check out his bio and the range of conducting he has successfully done at many major houses (including Paris, Barcelona, Moscow, and Tokyo) to question why the Met has not put him on the podium earlier, especially in light of all the Levine cancellations the last few seasons for which replacements were needed. I heard that he actually took this performance without any opportunity to rehearse with the orchestra, although he had been through the score with the singers (with piano accompaniment). Given that, his ability to summon an excellent response from the alert Met Orchestra was quite noteworthy.
As to the production and other aspects of the performance, I found this a peculiar staging of "Faust." I generally don't go for opera productions that transport a story to a drastically different time and place from what the composer and librettist(s) conceived. Gounod's early 19th century French grand opera was based on a Goethe play (Faust, Part I) written between 1772 and 1806, itself based on a legendary story of late medieval Germany. Re-setting it in the first half of the 20th century probably saved money in terms of sets and costumes, but did nothing to enhance the story, and, as usual with such updatings, produced a few moments where what the characters were singing seemed quite disconnected from their surroundings.
Be that as it may, my main objection to the production is that the unit set and the staging required the leading characters to hustle up and down stairs on either side of the stage (and evidently backstage as well), when they should have been concentrating on the plot and the music and the interaction of the characters. This seems symptomatic of many new productions at the Met, putting the singers through needlessly exhausting challenges created by the sets, sometimes putting the performers in risky positions, having to balance at strange angles, etc. Enough of this. Let's concentrate on telling a story with music and lets design sets whose function is to do that effectively, rather than to show off stage machinery. (The current Ring cycle, for example, which I've decided to avoid based on the advance descriptions, replaces a naturalistic production that I thought was excellent.)
Jonas Kaufmann sang the title role. This was my first experience of him live in the opera house, and I was a bit put off by the sound of his voice, which seemed a bit hard-edged and metallic, not what I expected from his very warm and rich sounding recital recordings. At a few times when he really opened up for the loud moments I was more impressed, but I hope to hear him in other roles to get a better sense of what he can do. He seemed a bit out of sorts last night.
Rene Pape as Mephistopheles was the most impressive of the lead performers, doing quite a bit of elegant acting (and dancing) as well as singing up a storm. He seemed the most "into his character" of all those on stage.
Marina Poplavskaya's Marguerite seemed generally fine to me, but not really spectacular. Sometimes I questioned her intonation in higher passages, and the somewhat disconnected phrasing of what should be longer lyrical lines.
Michele Losier as Siebel – a traditional pants role for the character of a teenage boy that today could probably be more credibly played by one of the younger, slighter male sopranists (Anthony Roth Costanza, anybody?) – gets the best song, early in Act III, and she made the most of it. Indeed, I thought her singing and acting was delightful throughout the opera.
Jonathan Beyer and Russell Braun as the soldiers Wagner and Valentin, were both very impressive in their Act II and Act IV big moments, showing lots of energy and solid singing.
Finally, there is the unfortunate Wendy White, who was giving a really fine rendition of Marthe's part when the accident sidelined her. Her stand-in, Theodora Hanslowe, picked up the performance in the middle of Act III and continued it in fine style. (I'm wondering whether she is the daughter of the late Cornell University Prof. Kurt Hanslowe, who was one of my undergraduate professors? Prof. Hanslowe's wife was a singer, and I had heard that they had a daughter who also became a singer. Interesting coincidence?)
This opera has plenty for the chorus to do, and as usual the Met Chorus did a sterling job, scaling the big moments in Acts II and IV, with the men especially impressive in the soldiers' march.
I'm glad I finally had a chance to attend an opera conducted by Pierre, and I count the evening a success despite the accidental disruption (which stretched the ending time by about half an hour). I look forward to my next Met adventure, The Enchanted Island – a pastiche concocted for the Met with arias from a range of Baroque operas, mainly Handel – on New Year's Eve. But I echo the disappointment of a composer friend who wonders why the Met is spending enormous resources to put together a faux Baroque opera with an all-star cast when it pays so little attention to contemporary American opera and the numerous pieces that have had first performances elsewhere and deserve performances in New York? The nation's largest and most prestigious opera house could stand to pay more attention to refreshing the repertory with newly composed operas…