Stefano Poda’s deeply intellectual mis-en-scène for the Teatro Regio's production of Gounod's Faust immersed the bourgeois love affair between Marguerite and the title character in an abstract and transcendental tangle of philosophical, existential and liturgical motifs. However, overflowing symbolism sometimes made it too academic, and the visual effects were suggestive if not properly enchanting.

Charles Gounod and his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré did not simply try to convert Goethe’s colossal and magnificently multifarious Weltanschauung into music: they focused instead on the levity of Marguerite’s and Faust’s troubled relationship. Goethe’s Faust is mostly a man struggling to exceed his own limits: he needs to know more and more. He looks for a pattern in the universe, for the ultimate principles of everything, to the point where is willing to deal with the demonic Méphistophélès to achieve this. Gounod’s Faust is an old man (the libretto puts no emphasis on the fact the he is a scientist) who desires youth once more. Not by accident, Méphistophélès convinces Faust to sign his deal showing him only a mirage of beauty, grace, and youth: Marguerite. The die is cast. The humble and naive young woman will be seduced, abandoned and then will kill the son to whom she gave birth.

Gounod’s Faust constantly insists on the simplicity of Marguerite, on her ingenuity (she will abandon herself to Faust also for the fascination of the rich jewels she has received). Furthermore, the bourgeois milieu of the opera stands out in its constantly indulging on religiosity: the chorus at the city gates during Act II, when Méphistophélès demonstrates his infernal power for the first time and all the students sing: “Regarde!/C’est une croix, qui de l’enfer/Nous garde!”, clearly reminds one of a liturgical chant. And at the end of Act V, when Méphistophélès curses Marguerite, the angels’ voices that welcome Marguerite into heaven produce a music that closely echoes the sound of an organ (Gounod was indeed deeply religious and fond of Bach’s music).

Poda’s mis-en-scène (in co-production with Israeli Opera and Opéra de Lausanne) realised a unique scene dominated by a central giant ring. As an arcane monolith or an occult stele, it is transfixing throughout the work, slowly rising or falling, scattering a sacred allure and solemnity. On one level, the symbolic ring might allude to the life cycle, to the circularity to which human life is condemned: to live and to die, without the chance to exceed the close circle, to grasp something higher. Later, the same ring will be filled with a white tree, to underline (perhaps with some redundancy) the metaphor of life, but will also collapse around Marguerite (as anticipation of her unfortunate fate of abandonment, imprisonment and madness).

The waltz at the end of Act II was a neurotic dance articulated in disconnected gestures; captivating choreography, which did not have anything of the waltz about it. It seemed an allusion to the only possible dance and interaction in modernity? A gloomy waltz of broken movements and repetitive crazy actions?

Walpurgis Night was a splendid moment of palpable and demonic frenzy: a great bacchanale of sordid mimes completely covered with mud, amongst the sulphurous smokes of Méphistophélès’ kingdom. Similarly, the prison scene was intense with all the bars represented by filaments which extend themselves throughout, clasping Marguerite and the same Faust in Méphistophélès’ diabolic net.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, working with Gounod’s intimate score for the first time, was magnificent in underlining the arcane and diabolic passages of the score, with the solemnity and the fury of Verdi’s Dies irae, but also in depicting with morbidity and the grace of the brief love idyll between Marguerite and Faust.

Irina Lungu interpreted a fragile and intense Marguerite, thanks to a captivating presence on stage, a fine technique and a crystalline timbre. Charles Castronovo was a vigorous Faust, full of sonority (showing his sinewy chest register from the first scene, when he was supposed to be an old disillusioned doctor). Ildar Abdrazakov was a towering and treacherous Méphistophélès, with a solid voice. The rest of the cast was fine, ranging from the impassioned Valentin of Vasilij Ladjuk to the unexpectedly sensual Marthe of Samantha Korbey.

Two performances are still left: lovers of aesthetic and symbolic productions should not miss them.