It’s Christmas 2012, it’s NYC, and our Christmas present this year is Roberto Alagna! Faust is once again at The Metropolitan Opera, and Robertino is here for two glorious performances: last night, and next Wednesday, the 28th of December. With his whirlwind press tour for the newest CD “Pasion”, behind him, and a jam-packed (until 2016) schedule ahead, this beloved tenor will have a brief respite from life for a sojourn of one month in New York City. Not that we take care of him here: he’s suffering from a sore throat, and today was in the emergency room for an ankle damage. It must have been that cartwheel in Act I last night!
Last night, Roberto demonstrated his consummate professionalism as he regaled a cheerful Christmas audience in spite of a sore throat, and as we have just learned, an ankle injury. Dancing, and playing the flirt in the part of the young Faust, Roberto demonstrates his acrobatic abilities as well as his winning ways.
This new production, by Des McAnuff places the opera in WWI-WWI-II era, with brilliant costumes by Paul Tazewewll. The excitement in the house is palpable: Roberto is in the house. The Met Opera shop is 4 deep at the counters, as Roberto’s CD “Pasion” flies off the shelves. And Carmen is playing on the big screen, in honor no doubt, of his presence.
Stepping into Faust’s shoes once again (Mr. Alagna was here in 2005 in the previous production, complete with top hat and cane) as a dandy, he brings to the Met stage his buoyant personality, and emotive portrayal of a man gone mad with self-doubt and guilt.
Like a 1920’s melodrama serial, this production begins with a black and white palette. The visage of Faust covers the enormous scrim of the Met stage, and like the Veil of Turin, speaks volumes before one single note of music is played. Robert Brill, set designer, Peter Munford, lighting, and Sean Nieuwenhuis, in charge of video design, collaborated on mood, before all else. The black and white overtones are dissipated in the opening scene as the lugubrious metal framework of the set is awash in fog. Lost souls wander aimlessly across the laboratory setting. Two definitive spiral staircases mark the boundaries between life and death. The elder Faust, in homburg and greatcoat (Wait! Could that be Roberto????) tells us by stance, posture, pose, of his exhaustion. One single red rose brings a spark of hope to the monochrome. Faust, aged, stooped is soon joined onstage by Mephistopheles. Sung by the fantabulous Rene Pape, our favorite devil, Meph is a cartoon icon of a bad boy. From this point onward, the costumes of Mephistopheles and Faust, the Younger, will mirror each other – the dichotomy of the psyche defined in the language of costume.
The rear of the stage is set with a screen that projects the faces of Marguerite, and at times, hope via a floral bower, or despair, as marked by the grey passage of time itself. As the young Faust emerges from the mists of time, the scene shifts onstage to a WWI pastiche: soldiers crowd everywhere, mingling with the bevy of fashionably dressed “camp followers”. Brian Mulligan, baritone par excellence, plays Valentin to the hilt, delivering a “Avant de quitter ses lieux” to a bravo’d, heavy applause. I did say a very enthusiastic crowd.
Mephistopheles uses chicanery, sorcery and cheap thrills to wheedle the wills of men, and bend them to his vision. Where Faust is flirtatious, Roberto gives us all the vigor such a cad could carry. Where Faust is touched by the raw innocence of his “conquest”, Marguerite, Roberto gives a seductive, moving, perfect “ Salut, Demeure chaste et pure”. He carries the entire house with him on a perfect note, heart -stopping and ethereal.
Our Marguerite, Malin Bystrom gives her Jewel Box song with a delighted, girlish enthusiasm. This is Ms. Bystrom’s Met debut, and she has moments that sparkle, like the tiara she gleefully models in the mirror, and yet falls into the arms of Roberto with trepidation.
A pink glow falls on the set, and changes us from severe “chaste et pure” to the warmth of a burgeoning love affair. Roberto does his thing: seduction in progress, by a master of the genre.
Although the Met here announces that “Mr. Alagna is not feeling very well, but he will attempt to finish his performance”, Roberto dives into the swordfight that kills Valentin with brio.
The danse macabre that may indeed translate into Walpurgis (we were missing the usual feminine demonic hovering ballerinas) proceeds the final denouement of Marguerite. The fires of Hell are now poison apple green , and her “pure radiant angels” is a relief from the demonic activity and the loss of Faust’s soul. Marguerite climbs the stairway to heaven, and our once- again aged Faust succumbs.
Throughout this well-directed, very smooth pacing, Rene Pape lords over the world weary reality that is Gounod’s Faust with aplomb. He is witty, slimey/suave and superlative in his white leisure suit. Both he and Roberto man it up in suit after resplendent suit, complete with spats and bon vivant boutonierres. The adept millinery department of the Costume Shop at the Met give us hat after hat, all phenomenons of height and drama, very WWI. The chorus is covered in perfect period ensembles that run the gamut in inspiration from “ Alice Blue Gown” to Irving Berlin.
Well done, and a Merry Christmas indeed!
Faust runs through January 19th