Gounod’s opera about a savant who makes a pact with the devil to seduce a young woman is known just about everywhere as Faust. But in the German speaking world, its name was Margarethe until a few decades ago, and even now the name of the work’s tragic heroine shares double billing with the man who ruined her when performed on some German stages. Frank Castorf’s production that returns to the stage of the Wiener Staatsoper proves once again that the Germans have a point, although the issue is no longer whether the French composer demeaned Goethe’s Faust by trivialising its main character.

Adam Palka (Méphistophélès)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

The point now is simpler. Faust is a no-show for much of this nearly three-hour opera. Of the 23 numbers, Faust only has one aria, and he adds his voice to duets or ensembles no more than eight times. His stage presence is correspondingly minimal compared to Margarethe, let alone Méphistophélès. In fact, if one were to give the devil his due, this opera would be named after him, particularly when the role is performed as admirably as by bass Adam Palka.

Yet, perhaps the biggest contributor to a wonderful evening of opera wasn’t even on stage. It was the sets by Aleksandar Denić and his crew that transported Gounod’s work into mid-20th century Paris, around the end of the Algerian War. Aided by the Staatsoper’s rotating stage and video walls dropping from above, the story switches seamlessly from Margarethe’s pied-à-terre to the Paris Métro, to a café, to the cathedral where Marguerite pleads with God for forgiveness. Live cameras not only capture facial movements and emotions normally hidden to all but audience members in the best seats. They also gave them an extra set of eyes, allowing them to see what characters were up to off-stage.

Stephen Costello (Faust)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

But that’s only one layer of an ambitious production that attempts to go beyond the very basic original moral lesson of good triumphing over evil. An adulterated advertisement for Coca-Cola dominates the butcher’s shop above which Marguerite lives, and as Faust declares his love for Marguerite in Act 3 (“Laisse-moi, laisse-moi contempler ton visage”) the screens switch to ads of consumer products popular in the 1950s. Contrasted with the grainy footage of battlefield deaths and the grim Act 4 scene where French soldiers return from war with the scalps of their foes, the message is clear: Paris dances while Algeria burns. The subway graffiti citing then Interior Minister Francois Mitterrand’s declaration of “l'Algérie c'est la France” is almost an afterthought.

Amid all these visual stimuli, focusing on the soloists was not always easy. But not doing so would have been a shame, particularly as far as Palka was concerned. Whether Baron Samedi, voodoo’s spirit of death, savvy denizen of Paris’ back streets or lustful goat-legged satyr, menacing or comical, he was dramatically the best of an exceptionally well-directed cast. And his voice matched him in all his manifestations. Many in the audience who despaired at the failed attempts of baritones in other performances to utter the demonic laughter called for in “Vous qui faites l'endormie”, Méphistophélès’ mocking love serenade, must have felt the frisson at Palka’s final deep-throated cackle.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Marguerite)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Video close-ups of Rachel Willis-Sørensen's face showed a Marguerite who was worldly yet chaste, free of all vice even while smoking an opium pipe. Her singing was at least as pure, effortless in the high notes yet full of dramatic intensity and, when called for, perfect ornamentation. That the death scene of Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, was among the evening’s most memorable was due in no small part to the vocal and dramatic abilities of baritone Étienne Dupuis. Also good were Monika Bohinec as Marthe, Marguerite’s neighbour (here the devil’s lover) and Margaret Plummer as Siébel, the student enamoured of Marguerite.

Faust was the only character somewhat lacking, through no fault of Stephen Costello's interpretation. After all, he’s given relatively short shrift by Gounod. The audience was told that Costello would sing despite the lingering effects of being indisposed for the previous performance, and he did what he could with the role, even beyond hitting that spectacular high C at the climax of his cavatina “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure”. Bertrand de Billy’s musical direction was full of verve while paying attention to the nuances of a score that runs the gamut of moods and musical expression.

The takeaway? No less a famous German than Richard Wagner blasted this opera back in its day as an “opportunity missed” to compose something worthy of Goethe’s Faust. But for those who believe that Gounod’s creation did not besmirch the work of the great German author, this performance was a joy.