Despite the brilliance of Gounod’s music, Faust is an opera so fraught with dramaturgical difficulties that I never imagined it becoming a favourite. But Michel Plasson and Georges Lavaudant have proved me wrong, creating an evening of opera for Grand Théâtre de Genève that not only provided an uninterrupted flow of vocal and musical treats, but also made consistent sense on stage.

The cast wasn’t exactly stacked with international household names, but you wouldn’t have known that from the way they acted and sung, with not a weak link among them. In Faust, the devil always gets the best tunes; in this production, he also got the best voice: as he was for Oper Stuttgart last season, Adam Palka was sensational. Unusually for a bass, his voice is youthful and virile whilst also having immense reserves of power. He could make Méphistophélès impossibly suave and attractive or turn him, in an instant, into a terrifying authoritarian. One normally associates the deep notes of a bass with gravel or velvet: with Palka, they were cold steel.

Ruzan Mantashyan (Marguerite) © GTG | Magali Dougados
Ruzan Mantashyan (Marguerite)
© GTG | Magali Dougados

Ruzan Mantashyan has middle and low registers as velvety, opulent, melting as Swiss chocolate. With dusky Armenian beauty to match, she made a diabolically desirable Marguerite, with enough vocal versatility to be bright enough in the Jewel Song, to stay pure of timbre and lyrical in the King of Thule aria (even while singing lying down on Marguerite’s bed), to turn on the romanticism for her duets with Faust and to be credible in her religious fervour at the end.

Jean-François Lapointe (Valentin) © GTG | Magali Dougados
Jean-François Lapointe (Valentin)
© GTG | Magali Dougados
The tenor doesn’t exist who is capable of turning Gounod’s idea of Faust into an attractive hero or a tragic protagonist with whom I can sympathise. But John Osborn did as well as anyone, making the transition with aplomb from tired old man into dashing young blade, clear-voiced, romantically phrased and reliably in tune in his big arias. Jean-François Lapointe impressed as Valentin with a commanding, weighty baritone; Samantha Hankey was an appealing Siébel; Marina Viotti oozed mature sexuality as Marthe, nearly too hot to handle for the devil himself.

Lavaudant understands that there’s no point in hunting for Goethe in this opera: there’s no great scientist to be found here, torn between search for truth and fleshly desires. He also avoids the trap of shoe-horning in some alien narrative that proves a bad fit for libretto, music or both. Rather, he treats Faust as a superbly crafted series of set pieces, each with outstanding music to match. He stages each with interest, intelligence and a decidedly “less is more” approach. When Méphistophélès breaks into the Golden Calf aria, we’re stunned by the suddenness of the mood change, but it’s accomplished with nothing more than the appearance of a pair of scantily-dressed showgirls and a round podium for Méphistophélès to step onto. It’s not exactly Busby Berkeley, but it’s highly effective because of the explosive power in Palka’s voice. When Méphistophélès and the villagers drink his superior wine, they suck it from the fingertips of the scarlet glove of one of the showgirls. When it is time for a fade-to-black as Faust and Marguerite’s encounter is heating up (“L'entretien devient trop tendre!”), the lights dim and Méphisto sprinkles a handful of stardust into the audience’s eyes, in a gesture that immediately places him as the sandman for any child (of a certain age at least) brought up on French bedtime television. Right up to the closing scene, there are countless examples of individually clever direction.

Adam Palka (Méphistophélès) © GTG | Magali Dougados
Adam Palka (Méphistophélès)
© GTG | Magali Dougados

Lavaudant claims to sort out his staging concepts only after working with the artists at his disposal and this was clearly in evidence, with each cast member receiving staging that was sympathetic to their individual physique and character. Mantashyan does the “dark, flashing eyes” thing far too well to be cast as a pretty young innocent, so Lavaudant makes her anything but virginal in Faust’s first vision – which works both because it matches her looks and because, in truth, that vision is a creation of the devil and sex is what Faust is after. It also neatly side-steps – at least for a while – the Madonna/whore contradiction which is such a problematic feature of this libretto.

Where Lavaudant was excellent in circumventing the dramatic weaknesses of this opera, Plasson was even better playing to its strengths. From opening power chords and urgent string figures worthy of a Beethoven symphony, we knew we were in safe hands – unsurprisingly so, given Plasson's decades of experience with this opera, of which he made a classic recording with Cheryl Studer in 1991. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande impressed throughout the evening with individual brilliance, romantic sweep and imposing church-like chorales towards the end.

I could go on... An undisputed five stars, on all counts.