After tenor Jonas Kaufmann captured eyes as well as ears as Siegmund last spring, it made sense, at least in theory, to cast him as a lover in a French opera, especially when he had the specific diminuendoing skills needed for it. Maybe not in an opera where portraying a man as being so madly in love with a woman made it hard to believe he’d abandon her the way he does, but hey, opera plots are never logical anyway. However, as Kaufmann himself pointed out in his interview, Charles Gounod’s Faust isn’t really about the title character. The production actually arguably tied him in better, both by making him one of the inventors of the atomic bomb with the opera being updated to take place in 1945, and then using that imagery, and then at the end having a short sequence to indicate that in fact the whole story took place in his head while he was dying of the poison he’d drunk.
This served the production’s main purpose too, which was to downplay the opera’s religiousness as much as possible, kind of hard to do with Faust, especially when being a French Catholic opera, but they went for it. That meant even less focus on Faust, until he really becomes just a means to an end; one wonders if now that he’s invented the atom bomb he felt damned anyway so he thought he might as well make a deal with the Devil, and so was really just a convenient pawn for Mephistopheles against the virtuous Marguerite, his true target in such an elaborate undertaking as his machinations here. Because Faust has always been about the Devil and Marguerite; the two of them split the opera’s two good songs(the rest of it is less memorable), and it’s her plight, left perfectly intact, that gives it its emotional power; it’s certainly no coincidence that the big ending is the conclusion of her story. In fact, until she actually starts getting some stage time in the second act it’s left to Mephistopheles to hold down the fort and try to keep our attention; he has his big aria of course but his comedy was played up too, now a bit less scary, since we no longer take him seriously as this lord of all evil.
It was helped, too, that he was being sung by charismatic Rene Pape, who managed even to upstage Marina Poplavskaya, and her acting ability served her well in this role, even if she didn’t impress too much in her interview, though that might have been the language barrier. Or more likely it was the insipidity of Joyce DiDonato as hostess. One hopes they don’t bring her back.