I fully realize that for many people, Garnett Bruce’s production of “Faust” at the Washington National Opera, which opened at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night, will be a welcome relief. It’s a traditional, even old-fashioned production of a beloved, old-fashioned opera.
“Faust” is the second of two operas about anti-heroes — or unlikeable cads — that WNO is staging this month, the other being “Eugene Onegin” in the Robert Carsen production. I find that production spare, poetic and evocative, but after I reviewed it earlier this month, I heard from several dissenters who found it too abstract. I know some of these dissenters will take a look at Earl Staley’s “Faust” sets — with Marguerite’s flower-choked house looking like a painting by former mall-art guru Thomas Kinkade — and think, “At last,” and relax into the evening with a sigh of contentment. (The production originated at the Houston Grand Opera.)
I have nothing against traditional productions of operas. I do, though, have a problem with opera that’s no more than sequences of pretty pictures and pretty sounds, without delving any deeper into the characters or actions or anything, really, about why we might want to put this work on in 2019, for any reason other than sheer nostalgia. Great singing would be a valid reason in my book, but this production didn’t really help any of its singers to excel, though Joshua Hopkins, with a bright, ardent voice, held his own in the bari-hunk role of Valentin, Marguerite’s soldier brother; Allegra De Vita was a sturdy Siébel; and Erin Wall offered a shining soprano in a rather bouncy portrayal of Marguerite herself.
Marcelo Puente, an Argentine tenor making his WNO debut as Faust, showed a conventionally heroic Latin-tenor approach — striking a pose with arm raised, holding it for applause — to a role that ideally would involve a little more French cream. The melting quality of Gounod’s music comes across better when sung meltingly, and while Puente’s instrument was reasonably solid, his habit of hauling off and clinging to bleaty top notes rather marred the effect. As for Raymond Aceto’s Méphistophélès, looking like a cross between King Philip from “Don Carlo” and one of the Three Musketeers: There’s a famous long-ago criticism in which George Bernard Shaw said of a Méphistophélès that he was more like a kindly Santa Claus, and Aceto seemed to have taken that as aspirational. He was a sweet buffoon, altogether unmenacing, and hard to hear.
Keri-Lynn Wilson, in the pit, led a reading that was as blunt and unnuanced as what was happening onstage; it went through all the motions without bringing any particular insight to the piece, though the chorus sounded like it was having fun.
It’s all well and good to embrace relics of the past, but it seems willfully naive to offer them up unexamined and undigested. “Faust” was once ubiquitous in American opera houses, but today, there’s little context for it in our culture. Do we really have to present its hoary stage business and outmoded attitudes toward women without any mitigation, when even a touch of self-awareness might make it more theatrically effective? In the third act, Marthe, the neighbor woman, begins chasing Méphistophélès, who remarked to the audience, as translated in the supertitles, “This neighbor is overripe.” The audience howled with laughter, seizing on a welcome moment of humor, but also making outright fun of a female character. (Deborah Nansteel looked and sounded great, and it was a pleasure to see her back on the WNO stage.) Lighten up, you say, but I don’t know why it’s supposed to be funny.
I do realize, though, that an opera company has to offer variety, and that many people would rather see a safe, traditional production than a new one that aims at cheap faux-relevance, or simply fails to bring the story across. I think even a traditional production of “Faust” could offer a lot more than this one does.
I was reminded, after the show, of the sweet flavored whipped-cream drinks at Starbucks, or Cinnabon rolls in the mall. These are things that smell and look like things I might like, but that I have always found too cloying and artificial-tasting actually to finish. They are, however, very, very popular. This “Faust” was a Cinnabon opera. I hope that many people like it, but I don’t.
Performances continue through March 30.