The German theatre director Frank Castorf first impinged on operatic consciousness with his radical take on Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 2013, a production that has gone from condemnation to acclaim as a classic in the four years since it opened. If Oper Stuttgart hoped for more of the same when it commissioned him to direct its new production of Gounod’s Faust – the first in Stuttgart for over 60 years – it got it. All the tell-tale characteristics of a Castorf staging, as gleaned from that Bayreuth Ring, are in place: the gritty realism, the eye for detail and the potent drawing in of influences, themes and allusions in a ‘post-dramatic’ melée of visual stimulation.

Atalla Ayan (Faust) and Adam Palka (Méphistophélès) © Thomas Aurin
Atalla Ayan (Faust) and Adam Palka (Méphistophélès)
© Thomas Aurin

The design team is also the same, and for Castorf’s relocation of the drama to Paris in 1960, around the time of the Algerian War of Independence, Alexander Denić has created another rotating miracle of a three-dimensional set – the encapsulation of the French capital from Stalingrad Metro station and the towers and gargoyles of Notre Dame to a street café and the derelict boucherie above which Marguerite has her digs. It is both ingenious and full of wit and self-references – one wall is adorned with a film poster for ‘The Horror Chamber of Dr Faustus’, another, perhaps to please Castorf’s Siegfried admirers, an advertisement featuring an open-jawed crocodile.

Méphistophélès ‘sells’ the idea of Marguerite to Faust with her cover picture on Paris Match and then wins her to Faust’s cause with jewellery, the cue for plenty of mercantile references in the staging – Coca-Cola posters and symbols abound and the love duet in Act III is accompanied by period adverts on film for Omo, Gibbs toothpaste and so on, to emphasise contemporary domesticity and consumerism. Paris as the world leader in consumerism, indeed, as well as the hot-bed of political radicalism and revolution. Paris, because Gounod’s is a thoroughly French take on Goethe’s Teutonic classic, its love of Gothic horror and all.

Daniel Keller (camera) and Adam Palka (Méphistophélès) © Thomas Aurin
Daniel Keller (camera) and Adam Palka (Méphistophélès)
© Thomas Aurin

In this world, Méphistophélès is a shaman, owner of a little shop of curiosities, and voodoo images surface throughout the evening, from dolls to masks and headdresses. Gretchen is a starlet, perhaps spinning her legs among the Grisettes in a Montmartre dive rather than yarn on a wheel. Valentin and Wagner are in the army fighting the Algerians and Siébel, written as a trouser role, is played as a young woman with a passion for Marguerite. Faust himself is a kind of everyman – as Gounod portrays him, yearning for lost youth and love rather than knowledge.

Castorf’s direction is typically tight – one might say choreographed (though he dispenses with the Act V ballet) – and there’s the recognisable trait of presenting several visual stimuli at once: two mobile cameramen track the characters more or less throughout and we often see the same scene from more than one angle, with close-ups of happenings within the set projected on to screens above. All credit to the fine cast that their performances can take this kind of often intimate scrutiny – film actors would at least be able to be off guard between takes.

Adam Palka (Méphistophélès) and Mandy Fredrich (Marguerite) © Thomas Aurin
Adam Palka (Méphistophélès) and Mandy Fredrich (Marguerite)
© Thomas Aurin

Faust was once more usually known as Margarethe in Germany, to distinguish it from more faithful treatments of Goethe. This production might just as well have gone down the Boito route and called it Méphistophélès, so consummately did Adam Palka’s devil dominate the evening. This richly characterful Polish bass had the charisma and allure to entrap the most wary. Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan’s Faust was mellifluous, with a nice line in legato and nice baritonal depth lower down in his range. Mandy Fredrich delivered a spectacular Jewel Song as Marguerite, but she sounded a little underpowered in ensembles, easily getting swamped by the other voices. Iris Vermillion’s chocolaty mezzo was a starry treat as Marthe, Gezim Myshketa was an eloquent Valentin and two members of the Stuttgart company’s opera studio, Michael Nagl and Josy Santos, impressed as Wagner and Siébel. The artistry and professionalism of the chorus and orchestra under the veteran conductor Marc Soustrot, coupled with the classy nature of the almost wholly company-based cast and the audacity of the production, go a long way to justify Oper Stuttgart’s recent accolade of Opera House of the Year by Germany’s leading opera magazine.