‘Faust’ Cleans Up Its Act

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The New York Sun

When Andrei Serban’s production of Gounod’s “Faust” made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera two seasons ago, it did not please everybody. (What can?) Many critics found it too busy, gaudy, and distracting. My view, in a nutshell, was, “This is ‘Faust’ — let it all hang out.” Most controversial was the bodysuit worn by Méphistophélès in the church scene. Speaking of letting it all hang out: That suit showed a lot of equipment, if you know what I mean.

Mr. Serban’s “Faust” returned to the Met on Tuesday night with a couple of revisions, including much less equipment. (At least that was my impression.) And portraying Méphistophélès was Ildar Abdrazakov, the bass from Russia. He was superb, practically stealing the show.

Without hamming it up, he was all stylish evil: seductive, proud, fun, nasty — satanic, indeed. A big, tall fellow who dominates the stage, Mr. Abdrazakov looked terrific in his variety of costumes. In Act I’s formal wear, he looked like a grown-up Billy Munster (or, if you prefer, a younger Grandpa from that same sitcom). And he somehow managed not to look stupid in Act II’s Punch costume.

Vocally, he was in excellent shape, putting over his arias and other material with confidence. He did not quite have the low G that Gounod asks for (and that is hardly a low note, for a bass). But that is a minor complaint.

The tenor in the title role was Ramón Vargas, giving his all, as he usually does. It may seem unremarkable that a singer should give his all — but not all of them do, you know. Earlier this year, I interviewed Joseph Volpe, before he left the post of the Met’s general manager. He named a singer he considered underrated: Mr. Vargas. He may be right.

On Tuesday night, the tenor showed some gleaming lyricism, to go with some less successful singing. He did not execute Faust’s big aria — “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” — very cleanly. He was rougher and heavier than he needed to be. But he was okay. The high C he attempted was not sustained, and not especially pretty, but it was there. Mr. Vargas was much better — wonderful, even — in the subsequent duet with Marguérite.

And who was the Marguérite? One of the most underrated singers in the world, as far as I’m concerned: the American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson. I have often thought she was penalized by her down-home name, and unpretentious manner. Her turn as Adina in Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” last winter was one of the best performances of the Met’s 2005–06 season.

As Marguérite, she demonstrated her unforced and intelligent singing: Ms. Swenson can make even a mediocre bit like “Il était un roi de Thulé” sound all right. Her Jewel Song was not as giddy and girlish as it has been in the past, but it was accomplished, no question. Ms. Swenson was flat at the beginning of the church scene, and her high notes in the famous trio were not as radiant as they might have been — but I expect a lot from this singer.

A Finnish baritone was making his Met debut in the role of Valentin: That was Tommi Hakala. (Cool name, huh?) In Act II, particularly in his aria, he was quite tight. But he did better later, and died well: both vocally and theatrically. Also making a debut was Karine Deshayes, a French mezzo-soprano in the role of Siébel. She was competent, if not boffo. Her aria, “Faites-lui mes aveux,” may have been the fastest on record (and I’ll have a word about the conductor in a moment). It was too fast for its own good, or the mezzo’s.

As she did when the Serban “Faust” debuted, Jane Bunnell took the brief role of Marthe, and she was again fantastic. Amazing what you can do, with an itty-bitty role.

Conducting all this was the Frenchman Bertrand de Billy. He is doing double duty at the Met, leading Ponchielli’s “Gioconda” as well. Both of these scores are often mocked (and ignorantly). Fortunately, Mr. de Billy shows great respect for them both. He has conducted them well, too (and that is not unrelated). He has not been tired, or grudging, or mechanical. You should have seen him urge on the chorus in Gounod’s Act II.

Needless to say, I have criticisms, as in the speed of Siébel’s aria. The plucked notes at the beginning of Act III should have been less obvious, dull, and inaccurate. Etc., etc. But there was much admirable conducting, and admirable playing. The orchestra’s warm intensity in the prison scene was downright moving. And several players within the orchestra shone: the oboe, the clarinet, the horn.

As for the chorus, its best moment came after Valentin’s death, in those hushed lines — well-done.

A final comment about this very grand (and gaudy and enjoyable) “Faust”: The Met has two actors — or persons, at least — portraying angels at the end of the opera. They accompany the redeemed, heavenward Marguérite. And, I swear, they really looked like angels.

Until March 17 (Lincoln Center, 212-721-6500).

The New York Sun

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