Faust, New York Metropolitan Opera, March 2003

Fairy Tale Figures for 'Faust' New York Times, 5 March 2003
'Faust' is Musty but Offers Musical Light Associated Press, 4 March 2003
Devil of a Good Show New York Post, 5 March 2003
'Faust' to last, devilishly dull New York Daily News, 5 March 2003
Chemistry, Song and the Devil, Newsday, 6 March 2003
In Review, Opera News, May 2003
Fairy Tale Figures for 'Faust'
Anne Midgette, New York Times, 5 March 2003
Goethe's "Faust" was inspired by a German folk tale that's still widely performed as a traditional puppet show. For his 1990 Metropolitan Opera production of Gounod's "Faust," which was revived on Monday night, Hal Prince evidently chose to stress this fairy tale aspect. Rolf Langenfass's sets evoke Disney's "Snow White" and the Flintstones' Bedrock, and are equally dated. As Marguerite, Angela Gheorghiu looks like Gretel (of "Hansel and Gretel") or a Disney child: threatened in Act III by a cartoonlike devil in a spooky church with clusters of melting candles, and flashing red lights.

But she sure doesn't sound like Gretel, unless Gretel has a dark and thrilling lower register and radiant top notes. Ms. Gheorghiu and her husband, the tenor Roberto Alagna, who sings Faust, have their own gimmick: they appear together as the romantic leads in major opera houses. It beats a lot of gimmicks, because both can really sing. I use the word gimmick only because their whole manner seems to signal their awareness of producing an entertainment as much as an art. With a little less flashiness and a little more fine-tuning  less artful artlessness in Ms. Gheorghiu's acting, a rounding off of the rough edges of Mr. Alagna's slightly pointed, slightly nasal but worthy sound  they could be counted among the truly greats. As it is, they offer a pretty good package, but it's still a package.
Image: Alagna & Gheorghiu in Faust, NY Met, 3 March 2003.
Angela Gheorghiu & Roberto Alagna in
Gounod's Faust. Photo by Ken Howard
The fairy tale concept means dressing James Morris's Méphistophélès like a "Star Trek" alien, with makeup and a red leather jumpsuit. Mr. Morris's demeanor, however, more approximates that of Santa Claus: a large, jovial, rather blunt figure, barking basslike sounds and going through the expected motions of his character, to the crowd's evident pleasure.

Katarina Karnéus is a warm, clear-sounding Siébel, and Alfred Walker has a nice turn as Wagner. As Valentin, Dwayne Croft, whose illness was announced, held on for a respectable if gruffish reading of his Act I aria, then let Mark Oswald take over in Act III, so that Valentin returned from the war a truly changed man.

Bertrand de Billy conducted beautifully: a warm, living performance. Few fairy tale cartoons could hope for such a soundtrack.

'Faust' is Musty but Offers Musical Light
Verena Dobnik, Associated Press, 4 March 2003

NEW YORK - The Metropolitan Opera 's season premiere of "Faust" was an exercise in contrast, an artistic "Faustian bargain": Musical glory set against visual ugliness.

Forming a brilliant leading trio were tenor Roberto Alagna as Faust, soprano Angela Gheorghiu as his love Marguerite and bass James Morris as Mephistopheles.

But the revival of the Met's 1990 Harold Prince production of French composer Charles Gounod's masterpiece seems, basically, the Broadway director's grand operatic mistake.

The sets and costumes by Rolf Langenfass highlight the Goethe morality play with dark, belabored scenery that resembles a kind of tattered Gothic cathedral. The costumes in some cases look like tailored rags, creating a production that alighted out of the Met's mothballs.

Thanks to ridiculous stage directions like the devil "damning" Marguerite in a sudden fiery puff, the production unintentionally drew laughs from the audience a few times.

If you closed your eyes, however, the sounds both vocal and instrumental were mostly heavenly on Monday, under the baton of Bertrand de Billy.

The Met chorus was an equal artistic partner to the soloists  with a sound that ranged from rich, powerhouse harmonies to the barely audible, loving prayer that follows the death of Marguerite's brother at Faust's sword.

Gheorghiu sang with tenderness while projecting well-articulated phrases into the audience a rare combination. And Alagna, her real-life husband, complemented her with ringing high Cs and a warm, secure timbre.

With Luciano Pavarotti all but retired and Placido Domingo in the sunset of his career, Alagna is among the best younger tenors around.

In the role of the snarling demon Monday night, Morris' edgy sonority fit the part perfectly, even though the bass is past his vocal prime.

Devil of a Good Show
Shirley Fleming, New York Post, 5 March 2003

Thanks to a well-publicized love affair (and eventual marriage), tenor
Roberto Alagna and soprano Angela Gheorghiu got stuck some years ago with
the icky label of "the love couple."

It's still good box office (in London tickets can hit $400 for their joint
appearances), so there's always an added ounce of personal interest when the
two sing together.

That was the case on Monday with the return of Gounod's "Faust." Gheorghiu
was the beautiful and doomed Marguerite, Alagna the jaded old philosopher
who sells his soul to the devil, regains his youth and seduces her.

The singers make a good-looking couple, but Gheorghiu outshines her husband
by a fair margin. Her voice is one of striking purity, and she lights up the
stage with radiance.

Alagna was a disappointment on Monday, his voice sounding grainy and his
delivery just plain boring.

Still, this "Faust" is terrific, and with the redoubtable James Morris as a
suave, contemptuous Mephistopheles, it would be hard to go wrong. He's the
one you watch whenever he's around.

The supporting cast was fine, with one casualty: Dwayne Croft as
Marguerite's brother, Valentin, had to bow out halfway through with

Soprano Katarina Karneus was nicely boyish as the love-stricken Siebel, and
conductor Bertrand de Billy led an alert, flowing performance.

'Faust' to last, devilishly dull
Howard Kissel, New York Daily News, 5 March 2003

Gounod's "Faust," once one of the world's favorite operas, may have lost
some of its popularity because of records. These days, you can hear its many
"hit tunes" simply by putting on a CD. It seldom packs such a dramatic
wallop that you feel a need to sit through the whole thing in the opera

In theory, the Metropolitan Opera solved that problem by casting tenor
Roberto Alagna and soprano Angela Gheorghiu - who probably will have to
endure the nickname the Love Couple their whole careers - as Faust and his
beloved Marguerite.

On opening night, no sparks flew. With the exception of Bertrand de Billy's
spirited conducting, the overall impression was a tepid one.

Part of the problem is that French opera requires a real understanding of
style. Gheorghiu came closest to it in the melancholy ballad about the King
of Thule, which is followed by her excitement at finding the box of jewelry
Mephistopheles has left her. She was soulful at first, then glittering in
the pyrotechnics that followed. She did not, however, make Marguerite a
compelling heroine.

As Faust, Alagna sang without any particular intensity except when it came
to the high notes.

There was no suaveness to James Morris' vocally coarse Mephistopheles. As
Marguerite's brother, Dwayne Croft was suffering from sinusitis Monday night
and was replaced halfway by Mark Oswald, who sang well but was no more
convincing than the others.

The sets have a Grimm look. The direction is unimaginative. De Billy's
conducting had a verve not matched by anything onstage.

Chemistry, Song and the Devil
Justin Davidson, Newsday, 6 March 2003

A glittering cast brings sparkle to a gloomy 'Faust'

Like the character in Goethe's play, Dr. Johannes Faust, the Metropolitan
Opera's production of Gounod's "Faust" wants a dose of rejuvenation. Rolf
Langenfass originally designed his gnarled troll houses and gothic torture
chambers for Harold Prince's 1990 staging, but in the intervening years
Prince had his name pried off the production's credits, and Peter McClintock
directed the current revival. Langenfass' high satanic look has not aged
well, the candlelit gloom and shadowed crannies only accentuating the
opera's eroto-religious excesses. But at least the Met has populated those
sets with a new and distinguished cast.

"Faust," with its long joint scenes of rapture and misery involving the
young- again codger and the dewy Marguerite, is the ideal vehicle for the
French tenor Roberto Alagna and the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who
are married and constitute the opera world's most glittery couple. They
specialize in keeping onstage chemistry fizzing with actual kisses and
believable devotion, as well as a nicely matched set of voices.

Fred and Ginger have their Bonnie and Clyde side, though, and their
calculated tempers, fondness for hype and demands for artistic control have
made their joint appearances at the Met somewhat sporadic - or is that
"eagerly anticipated"? A decade ago, Alagna was among the first of his ilk
to be dubbed the Fourth Tenor (thanks mostly to some hyperactive
publicists), and while his ensuing career has made him something less than a
legend, he is a marvelous singer of French opera.

That's a narrow specialty for a planetary star, but an honorable one. In
Italian music he can become strained and stilted, his voice both cottony and
hard, like the head of a bass drum mallet. But he sang Gounod's long, lush
lines with the pliancy of a natural. He doesn't bounce off consonants - he
slithers over them, as the French language does, and his ideal vowel is not
an open, extroverted "ah," but a more intimate, chewy "oh."

There is more to the husband-and-wife collaboration than realistic
smooching, though that's a plus in a genre that usually settles for bear
hugs and forehead pecks. Gheorghiu's voice has the gloss to Alagna's matte,
but they share a suppleness, a taste for softened rhythms, leisurely pacing
and a glide to their phrasing that made their duetsparticularlytender.

Bertrand de Billy conducted a performance that suffered from a little
first-night raggedness (especially in the chorus) but that nevertheless
brought out the concupiscent curves of Gounod's score. This is not really an
opera about defying Heaven or courting Hell: It's quite simply about an old
man who rediscovers his libido, with a little moralizing and murder thrown
in at the end. Everyone involved seemed to agree on that, including de
Billy, who lubricated the flow, and James Morris, who did a Samuel Ramey
imitation as Mephistopheles, clad in a scarlet jumpsuit and black cape,
ho-hoing evilly and with gusto as he ushered the pair toward mortal sin.

The only ones who embrace the spiritual coda, in which God and the Devil
duke it out for Marguerite's soul, are Prince, or Langenfass, or McClintock,
or whoever is actually responsible for the hovering white cross and the halo
of fuzzy white light. Whatever the story may imply about the tension between
worldly and spiritual well-being, the score definitely sides with the flesh.

In Review
John W. Freeman, Opera News, May 2003

Faust was back, and so were the Alagnas, on March 3, when the Met dusted off its 1990 production. Judging by a full house and salvos of applause, old friends are still best friends. But what is one to make of those Rolf Langenfass designs? His gnarled fantasy land of Gothic decay seems worthier of Busoni's Doktor Faust than of Gounod's version. Stage director Peter McClintock steered the principals through the tortuous maze of the garden scene, while in the more open public spaces, choreographer Gillian Lynne got up a kermis straight out of Brigadoon. A survivor of the original Harold Prince staging was a soldiers' chorus of wounded, traumatized veterans.

A capable cast did its best to relieve these glum surroundings with some Belle Epoque warmth. Roberto Alagna played a cheerful Faust who approached even the exposed high C in "Salut, demeure" apparently sans terreur. His tuning has improved, apart from a couple of high notes on the sharp side, and he sings French as naturally as he registers emotion with his voice. His tenor has an individual, grainy timbre, though its slightly baritonal cast is belied by a relatively unimpressive lower register. His love duet with Angela Gheorghiu was shapely, expressive and smoothly blended. Few sopranos have succeeded so well in showing Marguerite's progress from innocent amazement (at Faust's interest in her) to erotic awareness. In the church and prison scenes, with her clear top voice and sensuous lower range, she continued to unfold the character expressively.

James Morris, a seasoned Méphistophélès, was fitted with a Halloween costume that left him no choice but to play the role obviously. Rather than going for a suave Gallic approach, he took the Slavic route, singing broadly and putting a snarl in his tone. There were flashes of wit and irony, and his exchanges with the blowsy Marthe of Catherine Cook spiced up the garden scene with a pinch of music-hall humor. Dwayne Croft, though he managed Valentin's Act I aria creditably, had been announced as suffering from sinusitis, so in Act III he was replaced by Mark Oswald. In the fatal confrontation with Méphistophélès, Oswald's cockier, less dignified characterization suited the staging, which made him clamber over the awkward set, and he put a threatening tone into his death scene. Katarina Karnéus sang Siébel's romance with vibrance, verve and focused point, while Alfred Walker took an agreeably lively turn as Wagner.

The Met's Faust removes one cliché, Marguerite's spinning wheel, from "Il était un roi de Thulé," where it doesn't belong. It does belong with her spinning song, "Il ne revient pas," but that music, along with Siébel's "Si le bonheur," is banished. The Walpurgisnacht and its ballet are gone altogether. Despite these cuts, the somber tone of the production makes a long evening seem even longer. Perhaps sensing this, conductor Bertrand de Billy, after a torpid introduction, kept things moving right along. The waltz at the kermis went a mile a minute, and the garden scene never dragged. Along the way, de Billy still took care of such details as the postlude of the garden scene and its echo after Valentin's death, with their poignant falling violin phrases.


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