Gounod’s Faust should still be a good bet for any opera company, with its famous arias, infectious rhythms and eternal theme of yearning for the passions of youth. In spite of being performed with great regularity since the founding of the Met in the late 19th century, it can still arouse emotions and bring in the punters, as long as the company does not look upon it as a noble relic – and of course, few would ever do that.  French Grand Opera can live on and flourish, because the old standard formula is still valid if it is adapted to modern sensibilities, so in Des McAnuff’s production Faust becomes an alchemist for our times, an atomic scientist who probes the secrets of nature in a utilitarian laboratory.

It is clear from the beginning that he is wandering about dejectedly in 1945, because the huge projected image behind him is of one of the buildings still standing in Hiroshima after the bomb dropped, familiar from documentaries, and shabby survivors straggle across the stage in lines. After he has signed up with Méphistophélès and drunk from a beaker, he is transported to the days of his youth, during the Great War, where dresses are ankle-length and soldiers’ uniforms are those of the poilus who fought at Verdun. It becomes easy to focus on the horrific destruction caused by nuclear power and to see it as satanic, an adjective which could be used to describe war itself.

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The sparse set represents a science which is coldly empirical, though devilish, and there is an interesting tension between this and the sentiment and old-time religion of Gounod’s original. Jonas Kaufmann is a suave matinee idol as Faust, with significant acting skills and a simply amazing voice – excellent diction, a great range and enormous versatility – who gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. His polite approach to Marguerite (“Ne permettez-vous pas, ma belle demoiselle”) is notably elegant; his duet with her (“O nuit d’amour!”) strikingly effective. When his loved one is slumped in a prison cage just before her death, he reaches a high point with his moving rendering of “Mon coeur est pénétré d’épouvante”.  Marina Poplavskaya lives the part of the shy and innocent Marguerite, with a fair amount of emphasis on the shy side: the passion is there, along with an obvious engagement with the character, though her voice often has a subtle, restrained quality. She seems slightly too non-demonstrative at times, for example when sitting at her sewing machine (a Singer, naturally), but excels when she reaches the one that the audience is waiting for, the “Jewel Song”, and gives an impressive and seemingly effortless performance.  

René Pape as Méphistophélès commands the stage like a reincarnation of Salvador Dali, equipped with an oversized walking stick. He performs conjuring tricks to professional standards, as when he changes water into wine – a fact made more apparent from close-ups in a filmed version – and brings considerable subtlety to the character. He performs with great impact at full steam, as in “Le veau d’or est toujours debout!” with enthusiastic dancers all around him, and his serenade under Marguerite’s window (“Vous qui faites l’endormie”) is thoughtfully sarcastic, the nasty laughter toned right down.

There are other nice touches, for example when the soldiers return from the trenches, Marthe is handed the helmet of a fallen comrade. There are also some more bizarre ones, such as the four-meter-tall marching puppet of a soldier which briefly accompanies the real ones, and the unnecessarily giant cross which appears in the background when Valentin (an excellent Russell Braun) is threatening Méphistophélès with his little golden crucifix on a neck chain, but this Faust is certainly a classic with new sparkle, in which efficiently-organised ensemble work is complemented by a top-flight orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.