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I don’t usually go to movies at 9:55 a.m. Or operas, either.

But here I am on a Saturday at AMC Mission Valley 20, waiting for the caffeine from my morning tea to kick in before seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s four-hour-long presentation of Gounod’s Faust.

What am I, nuts?

Maybe. But I’m too curious to stay away.

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The screening is part of The Met: Live in HD series, the popular lineup of live transmissions in movie theaters. The time is three hours later in New York, which is why the matinee starts so early on the West Coast. Taped live, the performance will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, January 11, as an Encore presentation. (Click here for information about movie theaters and tickets.)

The co-production with English National Opera is a daringly updated version of Gounod’s 19th-century French classic about a suicidal old doctor who makes a deal with the devil in order to regain his youth and find love.

What’s more, this Faust has a strong local angle.

It was staged by Des McAnuff, director emeritus of the La Jolla Playhouse, where his hit revival of Jesus Christ Superstar recently played before heading to Broadway. The designer is Robert Brill, who’s well known here and has collaborated with McAnuff on projects including San Diego Opera’s stunning Wozzeck back in 2007.

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Director Des McAnuff

How good is Faust? Here, in the form of pros and cons, is my take on the Live in HD version in Mission Valley.

Theater

Pro: Faust is shown in one of the multiplex’s larger stadium-style theaters, with 253 seats. The sightlines are fine and it’s easy to read the English subtitles on the screen.

Con: It’s darn stuffy in here. The theater is packed, except for the first few rows. During intermission, a theater employee tells me that it takes a while to cool off such a large space with so many people in it. I take off my sweater and wish I could take off more.

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A striking scene from Act I of Gounod’s Faust. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Updating the opera

Pro: Props to McAnuff for moving up the opera’s timeframe. Instead of taking place in 16th-century Germany, it opens in 1945, after atomic bombs hit Japan. Faust, you see, is a nuclear physicist. McAnuff got the idea, in part, from his friend, the late La Jolla arts patron Rita Bronowski. She recalled that her husband, scientist Jacob Bronowski (best remembered for TV’s “The Ascent of Man”) decided to stop his work in physics after visiting Japan and seeing the horrifying aftermath of the World War II bombing of Nagasaki. Brill’s set – a striking, multi-tiered creation with spiral staircases – is enhanced by digital projections ranging from enormous red roses to a mushroom cloud. The costumes, meanwhile, include white lab coats and military uniforms. Especially effective is the spinning scene, where there’s a Singer sewing machine rather than the traditional spinning wheel. The end of McAnuff’s production comes with a surprise twist. Opera purists may object but you know what? The ending works.

Con: The time traveling can be confusing. When Faust becomes young again, it takes a while to realize that we’re no longer in the 1940s. We’re in the World War I era. And the violence is sometimes too graphic, as in the murder of a child.

Format

Pro: The presentation includes enlightening interviews with stars of the production as well as with McAnuff. The two intermissions give you enough time to stretch your feet, buy a snack, and visit the restroom.

Con: There’s too much shilling for upcoming Live in HD productions. It makes a lengthy event even longer. At one point, my legs start falling asleep, probably because I have a heavy purse sitting on my lap. (I should have listened when one of my friends told me, “Valerie, that’s not a purse. It’s a suitcase.”)

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René Pape as Méphistophélès, Jonas Kaufmann as the title character, and Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Sound quality

Pro: The sound is good and loud. In the title role, tenor Jonas Kaufmann has the voice (and looks) to be a successor to Plácido Domingo. Bass René Pape is a dandy Méphistophélès with a deliciously sinister laugh. As Marguerite, soprano Marina Poplavskaya proves she is an opera singer who can really act. (So let’s overlook her weak trill in the Jewel Song.) And both the orchestra and chorus sound splendid.

Con: The electronic amplification makes it hard to assess the vocal strength of the lead singers. It’s not like being in the Civic Theatre where, by the way, San Diego Opera presented an entirely different production of Faust last season. The Met is an imposingly large venue with 3,800 seats, about 800 seats more than the Civic. Singers need big voices if they’re going to be heard well in the last row. And no matter how sophisticated the equipment, a performance transmitted to a movie theater is never going to sound the same as one in an opera house.

Camerawork

Pro: Forget the dreadfully dull and static style that documents opera with unflattering shots of open-mouthed singers and drab-looking scenery. You won’t see that in Faust. The Met calls the transmissions “live cinema” and Barbara Willis Sweete, a film and TV vet, does an impressive job as director. The camerawork is smooth and graceful, encompassing close-ups, long shots, glimpses backstage, and peeks into the orchestra pit, where conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin provides expert leadership. (Shots of the audience linger on young people, showing that not all the Met’s fans are over 50.)

Con: There’s a problem with close-ups. You see things you’d probably miss if you were sitting in an opera house. Like the sweat on Pape’s brow. Or the fact that Russell Braun (who powerfully portrays Marguerite’s brother, Valentin) is very much alive and breathing when he’s supposed to be dead.

Cost

Pro: General admission is typically around $24 for Live in HD. That’s a whole lot less than the expense of flying to New York and paying $400-plus for an excellent seat at the Met.

Con: $24 is significantly more than the usual cost of a movie.

Audience

Pro: Patrons are more attentive than many movie audiences. They show up early. They don’t run back and forth for popcorn and other treats. They don’t talk during the opera.

Con: Patrons are so attentive that it’s a little intimidating. When one poor sap, who’s sitting a few rows from me, makes the mistake of opening candy that has a cellophane wrapper, another audience member snarls: “That crinkly noise is very distracting!” So be warned, opera-goers. It’s safer to unwrap cellophane in the lobby, where nobody cares.

Reader Rating: Three stars

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Comments

blueprl Jan. 6, 2012 @ 11 p.m.

What a great review! It discusses Faust from a contemporary, relevant standpoint. And I appreciate the tip about the purse! I think I carry what would be considered "matching luggage" -- enough to shut down an entire row of people seeking seats. I also learned a new word, after thinking "props" was a typo. I looked it up online and it means "proper respect." In the case of director Des McAnuff, that respect is well deserved.

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nan shartel Jan. 7, 2012 @ 11:23 a.m.

wow!!! the price is right! but i still wish i could afford SD Opera here

thx for the info

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Valerie Scher Jan. 7, 2012 @ 11:25 a.m.

Props to you, blueprl, for your comment. "Faust" is an opera that doesn't get enough respect. It's too often considered a creaky old classic with a few outstanding arias. So Des McAnuff deserves credit. He has directed an "atomic Faust" which is, despite its flaws, both fascinating and thought provoking.

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Valerie Scher Jan. 7, 2012 @ 11:59 a.m.

I bet many people feel the way you do, nan. They would go to San Diego Opera -- or other opera companies -- if tickets didn't cost so much. Opera is a gloriously complex art form that's labor intensive and expensive to produce, thus the steep ticket prices. (Ticket revenue, by the way, doesn't cover all the expenses.) My suggestion? Check out San Diego Opera's website and see if there's a single ticket or a subscription package that you can afford. Even if you sit way up in the balcony, the sound is good. Just bring along binoculars so you can easily see what's happening on the stage.

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nan shartel Jan. 7, 2012 @ 12:08 p.m.

thx Valerie...will do ;-D

i have no criticism of SD Opera having to reclaim most of their cost thru ticket sell

i just wish i could afford to go occasionally

being at live Opera is tremendously exciting...a real event if the voices are good

and i'd have a reason to dress up lol

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Valerie Scher Jan. 7, 2012 @ 12:34 p.m.

Hope you get to the opera, nan. You don't even need to dress fancy. Sequins are optional!

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