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.
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.
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.