Thursday, October 05, 2006

Once more, with feeling

I took my own advice and caught the Met's revival of Faust. Despite the mixed success of the original, this was an unqualified success, where everything one hoped went right and nothing one feared went wrong. Go see it.

Perhaps most surprising therein is Ruth Ann Swenson. Once the greatest of Three Name Soubrettes, she's had a number of iffy years in transitioning from the stratrospheric to the classic lyric soprano range. Her spring success in Elisir may have signaled renewed vocal comfort, but she's ever been the same sort of performer: remarkable sound, not much else of note (beyond, naturally, superb soubrette-isms). Easy to knock, but I've always been a fan.

But Marguerite turns out to be almost as ideal a role for her as, say, Adina: she outshines her predecessors in this production in nearly every way. Vocally, after a bout of uneasy pitch to start (through the Thule song, as I recall), it was as one would've expected. Clear, resonant top notes and no trace of tiredness even in dominating the closing trio. The surprise is that she makes far more dramatic sense of the whole character arc.

Part of it is that the production (Andrei Serban's, as edited by -- it appears -- Stephen Pickover) now gets in her way rather less than it did Isokoski and Villaroel's. Act 2's nihilistic excess is total, and the women in what look like abayas still jar in the soldier's chorus, but on the whole this incarnation of the Faust looks almost spare. (Perhaps it was lowered expectations, as with Flimm's Fidelio). The premiere's biggest laughingstock -- the devil's white, codpiece-bearing bodysuit worn in the Cathedral scene -- seems to have been reduced, spray-painted in darker shades, and generally de-emphasized (less crawling, climbing, and writhing). There's actually room for Marguerite to make an impression now, and she does.

And Swenson appears to make a virtue of necessity in tracing Marguerite's development. She lacks the acting chops to make much of particular dramatic moments, so she doesn't much try, instead showing a near-continuous line from innocence to madness. Her Jewel Song, for example, is neither calamitous nor fulfilling for Marguerite: it's just the song of an innocent girl with no idea what shadow is entering her life. Her vocal ease sells it, of course (though I suppose I should mention that the trills aren't as well-defined as they once were), and the choice pays dramatic dividends when her equally straightforward love, horror, sorrow, and madness appear in similar style. All the elements connect -- on the scene-to-scene level on which Gounod and his librettists devised it.

*     *     *

But enough on Swenson. The men are at least as much the stars of this revival. Ildar Abdrazakov, best-known so far as Mr. Olga Borodina, satisfies as Méphistophélès in a way that Rene Pape (for all his plaudits) really didn't. Abdrazakov is a more Gallic devil, ironic and amused, trusting his firm and surprisingly spacious bass to carry the dramatic elements without forcing. Over the course of his evening Pape wore himself and the audience out with generalized Germanic intensity, while Abdrazakov's worldly appeal won all over here. As with Swenson, of course, the sound itself had a lot to do with it...

In the title role Ramón Vargas sings well, but his voice is smaller than, say, Roberto Alagna's (the predecessor in this production) and he consequently works within a narrower dynamic and coloristic compass in the part. That said, it's a pleasure, and he and Swenson make a natural pair.

Two singers made their Met debuts at this Tuesday performance. Finnish baritone Tommi Hakala (Valentin) has an impressive enough instrument and presence that one easily forgives him for letting histrionics interrupt his natural flow of sound. He'll be back, I think. Meanwhile French mezzo Karine Deshayes was as good as Siébels tend to be during this great mezzo glut.

Bertrand de Billy took an act and a half to really warm things up, but was afterwards admirable.

*     *     *

This is, of course, just the sort of thing in which the Met is supposed to excel: deluxe casting in grand romantic fare. For once, it does -- for the ear and even for the heart. It would be a pity if the season's string of non-sellouts continued through this.


  1. Heard Swenson in Faust with Pittsburgh Opera a couple of years ago - she was great. Listened to the current performace on Sirius - her top notes sounded weak - but this always seem the case when I hear her on radio - do the microphones do something to her voice?

  2. Based on what I heard last night (10/16) I think I may have to disagree, slightly. While she does innocence and sweetness very well, she's such a placid singer that I was wondering if she's been placed on sedatives to keep her from getting too animated. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

    Biggest suprise -- "Mr. Olga Borodina" as the devil. Whenever I think of a slavic bass in that role, I imagine Boris Christoff, but he (Abradzakhov) managed to lose the accent quite effectively.

    Also, I think the compression on Sirius can make the voices sound a little "metallic". Or it could be that I have the tuner hooked up the the (aging) VCR for taping purposes ;).

    --Ch. R.

  3. It occurs to me that I should have been clearer....

    "behavior-controlling sedatives"

  4. Of course, this could account for it too.

    Very sad. Hope it went okay.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.