Gounod's librettists, Barbier and Carré, based the libretto on a cribbed version of Part I of Goethe's epic play about an aging scientist who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for youth and romance. (See here for a synopsis.) Gounod added musical weight to the story through lavish orchestration (including offstage organ and no less than three harps) and several elaborate ensemble scenes.
The principal parts are: Faust (Joseph Calleja), Mephistopheles (Ferrucio Furlanetto), Marguerite (Marina Poplavskaya), her friend Marthe (Wendy White), her brother Valentin (George Petean), Valentin's fellow-soldier Wagner (Jonathan Beyer), and Siebel (Kate Lindsey, in a pants role), a teenaged competitor with Faust for Marguerite's affections. In general, all of these roles were well-sung, as one would expect from the Met. In the early going, however, Mr. Calleja was having difficulty projecting his voice over the orchestra, as he was struggling through illness. Unfortunately, he had to withdraw at the first intermission, after which David Pomeroy took over the role in more than able fashion. Deserving special mention, also, is Mr. Furlanetto's Mephistopheles, inhabitating the role with devilish gusto.
Des McAnuff's production draws heavily upon mid-twentieth-century film, painting and architecture. That historical moment, which led to the development of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons (Fat Man and Little Boy hover over Faust's lab), represents one of mankind's greatest disillusionments with its own scientific development: a recurring theme in Faust. Robert Brill's set creates a Corbusian version of Frankenstein's workshop, with antiseptic white spiral staircases and shiprails framing floating scraps of film projected onto scrims. Freed by this abstract setting from the need for realistic lighting or scene transitions, the designers dramatize the action with spot and strobe-lighting effects while a small army of lab-coated extras cleverly enact the open scene changes. This design may seem severe for a simple romance, but its visual impact was undeniable.
Unfortunately, McAnuff's other directorial choices scramble the opera's logic and blunt the set design's force: time travel is implied but not clearly demonstrated, and the opera's final moments suggest the tired "it was all a dream" trope. But when the music and design complement each other, as in the fourth-act church scene, this production is darkly enthralling, and I would encourage anyone in search of compelling imagery to accompany their opera to give it a try.
Four performances of Faust remain this season; visit the Met site for tickets and information.