NEW YORK (AP) — Maybe Des McAnuff should have added a Slim Pickens-type Maj. Kong from "Dr. Strangelove" to ride the atomic bomb in his production of Gounod's "Faust" for the Metropolitan Opera.
The heavy-handed, gimmicky staging by the two-time Tony Award winner arrived at the Met in November 2011 and returned Thursday night with Marina Poplavskaya reprising Marguerite, joined by Piotr Beczala in the title role and John Relyea as Mephistopheles.
In an effort to appear relevant, McAnuff shifts the action from 16th-century Heidelberg to a nuclear laboratory between the 20th century's two world wars. Faust and Mephistopheles wear suits, surrounded by scientists in white lab coats.
Most of the evening is a flashback. The Walpurgis Night scene is dominated by an A-bomb. There is a mushroom cloud. The large, industrial-looking set frames Faust's lab in the opening act, then with minimal shifts represents the inn, Marguerite's house, the church and the prison. Faust commits suicide at the end.
For short stretches, some of the changes were illuminating — such as Peter Mumford's eerie post-nuclear green lighting for the Will-o'-the-wisps chorus during Walpurgis and Kelly Devine's spirited choreography for Mephistopheles' Song of the Golden Calf, "Le veau d'or est toujours debout!" For most of the opera, the alterations were extraneous and distracting — such as the sunglass-wearing, clipboard-toting scientists who replaced the demons and witches celebrating the Walpurgis sabbath.
Poplavskaya had an off night, her soprano sounding far more thin and shrill than it did when the production premiered, especially during an underwhelming Jewel Song. Beczala was dashing and provided the vocal highlight with "Salut, demeure chaste et pure (Hail chaste and pure dwelling)." Relyea, while lacking Rene Pape's velvet voice of last season, sang with power and gusto and proved to be a suave devil.
Julie Boulianne was a peppy, sweet-voiced Seibel, and Alexey Markov sang with richness as Marguerite's brother Valentin.
Conductor Alain Altinoglu had some coordination problems with the cast and orchestra, leading to some flat entrances and endings, but conducted with energy and color. Sean Nieuwenhius' video projections are striking and dramatic.
Jonathon Loy was stage director of McAnuff's production, which debuted at the English National Opera in 2010. There are four more performances through April 5.