Few would argue that Charles Gounod’s 1859 operatic version of the familiar “Faust” tale is any kind of masterpiece, yet it remains a perennially popular staple of opera’s repertoire. The Nov. 29 perf at the Met was its 734th at the theater, this time in a new production by Broadway director Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys,” the upcoming “Jesus Christ Superstar”) in his Met debut. McAnuff’s approach of updating the story to just after WWII smacks of deja-vu rather than freshness or originality, but despite this, the director’s concept adds contemporary urgency to a work that can often feel dated and superficial.
A co-production with English National Opera originally mounted last year, McAnuff’s staging makes Faust a bomb-building nuclear physicist and flashes back to his youth in World War I. But because the Met recently staged John Adams’ “Dr. Atomic,” about a similar subject in the same era, the update has a been-there, done-that feel to it.
Besides, McAnuff’s concept doesn’t fit perfectly with the original libretto or with Gounod’s decidedly old-fashioned score. Is the guilt Faust feels a result of his seduction and abandonment of Marguerite, or is it due to his role in the invention of the atomic bomb? Much of the time, Gounod’s romantic tunes seem to be saying one thing and McAnuff’s dark staging another.
Still, these incongruities raise questions and ideas that prevent “Faust” from falling into its usual predictability. Matters are also helped by conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, whose alert pacing makes the most of Gounod’s catchy melodies and does much to enliven the score’s numerous slow, arid stretches.
Robert Brill’s unit set is a large, dark science lab flanked by towering spiral staircases and backed up by huge video screens, upon which frequently appear moving images (designed by Sean Nieuwenhuis) of cloudscapes, blossoming roses and, inevitably, the explosion of the atomic bomb. Costume designer Paul Tazewell clothes the 1940s chorus in starched white lab coats; the World War I-era chorus in understated civilian and military dress. Faust and Mephistopheles get the showiest outfits: they sport neatly-tailored ice-cream suits and tuxedos, with the Devil also getting his due in gaudily high-rolling pimp and mafia-don attire.
Matinee-idol tenor Jonas Kaufmann was in fine vocal form on opening night as Faust, modulating dynamics with enormously seductive power and control. His stage presence at times seemed uncharacteristically stiff; this will likely improve as the run of performances continues.
Met audiences have already seen Rene Pape’s Mephistopheles in a previous, unsuccessful 2005 staging by Andrei Serban; the performer once again plays the role with masterful charisma and wit. Russell Braun is a winning, firm-voiced Valentin, and Michele Losier lavished her rich lyric mezzo on the trouser role of Siebel, while convincingly mimicking the physical awkwardness of a teenage boy.
The weak link is soprano Marina Poplovskaya as Marguerite. Although the Lillian Gish-like quality of her stage movement was arresting, her hollow, unevenly-produced sound, lack of fluidity and droopy phrasing put a vocal hole where this opera’s heart should be.