In his Metropolitan Opera debut last season, Andrei Serban directed an inventive, highly eccentric production of Hector Berlioz’s rarity “Benvenuto Cellini” that won few kudos from either critics or the notoriously conservative opening-night audience. In his sophomore Met stint, it’s clear the helmer learned his lesson. Serban has been tamed beyond recognition, delivering a “Faust” that, electricity and anachronistic updates aside, might have looked right at home when the French warhorse opened the new Metropolitan Opera house in 1883.
Moviegoers will know Gounod’s “Faust” as the Groundhog Day opera that keeps popping up in the old Gotham of Martin Scorsese’s screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.” In the mid- to late 19th century, the opera was a preem-night fave for many seasons. So much for the good old days of unquestionable good taste.
The Scorsese film features a few highlights from “Faust” and leaves out the other 2½ hours Gounod wrote on automatic pilot. If this seems a harsh assessment, consider that James Levine had never conducted the opera at the Met, in his 34 seasons there, until Thursday night. His belated performance on the podium did not make a case for reviving “Faust.”
Productionwise, the evening’s high points were those rare moments in which Serban’s signature urge to radically reinterpret somehow squeaked through: On her walk to church in act two, Marguerite (Soile Isokoski) is introduced alongside a bevy of whores. In the act-four church scene, Mephistopheles (Rene Pape) delivers his damnation in a Latex muscle suit complete with T. Rex tail. Another nice touch was Serban’s embrace of Gounod’s insipid religiosity at opera’s end, when two life-size angels, with 10-foot wingspans, welcome Marguerite to heaven.
Otherwise, the costumes and sets by Santo Loquasto are a farrago of styles. Faust (Roberto Alagna) begins medieval, then turns into Jiminy Cricket in white top hat and tails. In some scenes, there’s a nod to the Industrial Revolution, not to mention the famous iron-and-glass set the Paris Opera brought to the Met in 1976. The garish reds of the aforementioned church and whores suggest Broadway at its touristy best. And truth be told, Mephistopheles’ eye-popping muscle suit is a direct ripoff of Eiko Ishioka’s work for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula.”
Worst of all, Loquasto often puts some big object (a tree, a brothel) centerstage, forcing all the action downstage, which in effect creates an upstage void in front of the painted cyclorama.
The singers, for the most part, did not make up for the shortcomings of the production or Gounod’s work.
The exception was the Met’s new superstar, Rene Pape, who, as if on vacation from the heavier lifting of Richard Wagner, appeared to be enjoying himself amid the general nonsense.
As Marguerite’s aggrieved brother, Dmitri Hvorostovsky once again made good use of his endless legato, but he couldn’t prevent his essentially small-scale baritone from disappearing in ensembles or when accompanied by more than a dozen instruments.
With her fudged trills, Isokoski failed to turn “The Jewel Song” into a vocal showcase, and at full throttle in the final trio, her voice turned thin. But in between, she set off real verismo fireworks in the mad scene — even if it is a French opera — and her top never sounded less than gleaming.
Once upon a time, Alagna was an ideal Faust — he was a fine Werther last season — but his voice has increasingly thickened from singing too much Verdi. He continues to phrase beautifully, and his mezza-voce in midrange can still ravish. But whenever the line ascends and he attempts a head voice in true French style, the effect is too effortful for comfort.