The question posed by the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Gounod’s Faust, other than how long Peter Gelb intends for us to endure what increasingly seems like a willful parade of directorial incompetence, is what is to be thought about Marina Poplavskaya.
Ms. Poplavskaya, who played the lead female role of Marguerite, is one of those singers about whom there is genuine debate. People aren’t quite sure what to make of her. Though she has starred in three major new productions at the Met in the past year, she isn’t a popular star, exactly. You’d be hard-pressed to find a random New Yorker who recognized her name.
But she’s not a connoisseur’s favorite, either. Opera lovers tend not to have liked the long profile about her that appeared in the New Yorker last year (which is also the only reason a wider audience would have heard of her). Written by the legendary journalist Gay Talese, it was a funny, delirious celebration of the kind of diva thought to be a thing of the past, the kind of diva even diehards have come to be embarrassed of.
Near the beginning, Mr. Talese writes about her reluctance to have him visit her in Russia due to a rash of forest fires. “She relented,” he writes, “asking only that I bring from New York as many surgical masks as I could find.”
Later in the piece Ms. Poplavskaya hauls her bags in a luggage cart across 14 lanes of Buenos Aires traffic when she abruptly decides to move from one hotel to another. At one point she and Mr. Talese appear not to be on speaking terms: “It was my fault that she had sung so poorly,” he surmises from her attitude during their interaction after a rehearsal. (It’s not a strategy I’d generally recommend singers try with writers, but Mr. Talese seems, like a long line of older men before him, ultimately entranced by her.) In sum, she comes across seeming rather mad, which is the usual evaluation of her by her colleagues.
The morning after the Faust premiere The Observer received an email from an opera aficionado comparing Ms. Poplavskaya to Delia Rigal, another vocally flawed yet compelling soprano (now largely forgotten) who had a brief but strong run at the Met in the 1950s. Ms. Rigal made her company debut as Elisabetta in Margaret Webster’s star-studded production of Verdi’s Don Carlo, which kicked off Rudolf Bing’s reign as the company’s general manager; Ms. Poplavskaya appeared last year as Elisabetta in another new Don Carlo, this one directed by Nicholas Hytner.
She was perplexing in the role, sometimes vocally hard-edged and uncertain of pitch but utterly magnetic. I keep returning to one moment, deep in the opera. Elisabetta has discovered that her lady-in-waiting, Princess Eboli, was once the king’s mistress, and banishes Eboli to a convent.
Before she does, she forces the princess to return a cross. It was entirely arresting, the way Ms. Poplavskaya held her hand out for the necklace, her back tense and her fingers painfully frozen. Her posture alone told you everything you needed to know about the character and her trajectory from innocence to experience. This, you were convinced, was a star.
A month later you were reconvinced, when she starred in Verdi’s La Traviata. (In both productions, Ms. Poplavskaya was in the right place at the right time, taking over the Carlo that was originally planned with Angela Gheorghiu and the Traviata that was intended for Anna Netrebko.) The first act, which requires dazzling coloratura agility, was difficult for her, and once again there were pitch problems and a persistent thinness of tone. But she hit her spots: in the second act she seemed physically transformed by Violetta’s tragedy. Opera lovers are often willing to accept many vocal shortcomings from singers who fascinate and move them, a phenomenon that has allowed Ms. Poplavskaya—who has striking looks that translate well to the Met’s high-def broadcasts—to be successful.
The Faust was perhaps her most satisfying leading role yet in New York. This was not the sentimental little-girl Marguerite generations of audiences have come to love. Of the lead performances, Ms. Poplavskaya’s was the most attuned to Des McAnuff’s hard-edged, industrial vision of the work, which Mr. McAnuff updated to the dawn of the atomic age. While the tenor Jonas Kaufmann seemed bored and the bass-baritone Rene Pape had a bit too much color for this black and white world, Ms. Poplavskaya’s cool, sometimes even raw singing somehow fit the skeletal catwalks and scaffolding that served as the unit set.
Her ballad about the King of Thule was more profound than simply melancholy; her Jewel Song had mania in its joyfulness. Near the end of the opera, delirious, her hair roughly cropped, Ms. Poplavskaya’s Marguerite seemed both personal and universal, the sound emerging out of her in a narrow, penetrating line.
But even her fine, thoughtful performance could not save the latest in a series of drab, bland new productions at the Met. As in Michael Grandage’s Don Giovanni, there was an arbitrary quality to the stage action in this Faust, which was energized by Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s warmly propulsive conducting but chilled by a vision that seemed less rigorous than harshly scattered. Handsome and with burnished tone, Mr. Kaufmann is the platonic ideal of the Romantic leading man but he seemed underdirected and at sea, ringing in climactic high notes but muted elsewhere.
It takes a very specific, very self-motivated singer to make a production like this work. The stage mostly just seemed empty; as in Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle, there were attempts to engage the eye with video projections, but these were particularly cheesy ones. Once again there seemed to be little coherence in a director’s work at the Met; Mr. Gelb tends to be convinced by a one-line concept or the phrase “Tony Award winner.” Ms. Poplavskaya is far more interesting than much of the rest of the production, but she is far less easily compressed into marketing copy.