By Stratton Rawson – Senior Producer, Classical 94.5 WNED
Faust —the opera not the long metaphysical poem by Goethe that inspired it— has always been the opera that defines what opera going means in America. Faust’s iconic presence on our soil was enshrined in the opening paragraphs of Edith Wharton’s classic novel about the travails of life in upper class New York, The Age of Innocence:
"On a January evening of the early 70s, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances ‘above the Forties,’ of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people'' whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.
It was Madame Nilsson's first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as `an exceptionally brilliant audience’ had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient ``Brown coupé'' To come to the Opera in a Brown coupé was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one's own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line, instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose of one's own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was one of the great livery-stableman's most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it."
That splendid “new” opera house was built in New York City and it quickly became dubbed in a not too subtle dig at Wagner’s Bayreuth opera house known as the Festspielhaus as the Faustspielhaus because of the all too frequent staging of Gounod’s most famous opera. That, of course, was life at we now call the “old” Met. Today we don’t even need to worry about how, —carriage or coupe— we get to and from the opera house but whether the DVR hasn’t been reprogrammed to capture the finale of Glee.
In the two generations since the “new” Metropolitan Opera House became the anchor to Lincoln Center, Faust hasn’t been as familiar as it once was. The opera’s soaring tunes no longer fill the air waves in support or radio and TV dramas. To me that is all to the good, because now when I hear Faust I am not bothered by commercial and other associations and can concentrate instead on the drama of Faust’s infernal bargain with Mephistopheles and the heart lifting story of Faust’s lover, Marguerite’s redemption.
This most recent Met production is a startling update on the 16th century tale. It begins in a post atomic world and when Faust is transported by the devil back to his youth, it is just after WWI placing the opera at a crucial turning point in the 20th Century. Some found this “post modern” take off putting. But there is no question that musically the production was sumptuously cast. Jonas Kaufman was in splendid voice and Renee Pape an excellent if a bit slighter than usual Mephistopheles. Marina Poplavskaya was everything that the stentorian, center stage stuck, iron lunged soprano of old Christine Nilsson was not, but a slim, alert and affecting actress with a nimble voice that while its coloratura wasn’t spot-on was full of girlish vivacity and genuine pathos. It’s nice to know that in an age of obsolescence, there is still one old appliance of an opera that promotes tears as well as applause from its listeners. Great Performances at the Met presents Faust Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. on WNED-TV.