The Devil certainly gets his due in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Gounod's Faust, which returned for the first time this season Thursday night with a stirring cast led by Piotr Beczala in the tile role, Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite, and John Relyea as Mephistopheles.
The current Met staging, by the theater director Des McAnuff, had its premiere last season and is another of the updated visions of classic operas to which the Met is now devoted. The action in Gounod's masterpiece, based loosely on Part I of Goethe's drama, has moved from the early 16th century to the first half of the 20th and the modern Hell that drives Faust to make his pact with the Devil is the atomic age.
During the musical introduction, Faust sits alone in a deserted scientific lab while a photograph of the original Ground Zero -- the domed building in Hiroshima that was the only thing left standing after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city -- is shown on a backdrop. Once Faust signs on with Mephistopheles, the lab suddenly springs back to life and replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the code names for the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II, fall from the flies.
If you should wonder what the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have to do with a German scientist despairing over his life, it is not the only incongruity. When Faust is transported back to his youth in Act 2, a group of soldiers are about to march off to war. Given McAnuff's time frame and the usual setting for Faust, one would assume they are German soldiers on the way to World War I. Yet they are all wearing French helmets of the era, and sing of victory when they return two acts later.
The unit set looks more like a prison cell block than an atomic lab. There are metal staircases, both circular and vertical, on all sides, along with catwalks and sliding doors. It takes a bit of imagination to reconcile this sterile set with Marguerite's rustic house and garden, not to mention the interior of a church, in later scenes. And the flights that Marguerite climbs to heaven at the end look more like a high-rise fire escape than a stairway to Paradise.
But if the trappings seem somewhat barren -- and in fairness, they often match the bleak nature of Faust's contract with Mephistopheles -- the fine cast the Met has assembled musically brings one of the perennially favorite operas to life. Faust was the first opera the Met presented when it opened its doors in 1883 and it has never been long out of repertory.
Beczala, who scored a big success in the title role of the Met's new Las Vegas production of Rigoletto earlier this season, was excellent as Faust. He made the transition from the verge of suicidal despair to lustful youth effortlessly, ranging from a strong lower register in the opening "Rien!" to lyrical heights in "Salut demeure." And Beczala's phrasing throughout was with brilliant clarity.
Poplavskaya gave an enchanting performance as Marguerite, though she was clearly battling a cold that left the very top notes a bit thin, especially in the coloratura passages in Jewel Song. Yet the emotional roller-coaster Marguerite rides was conveyed through Poplavskaya's vocal elegance, and she was especially moving in the great climactic trio.
Relyea was in top form as Mephistopheles, wily and charming as a snake-oil salesman. His "Le veau d'or" was rousing and the mocking "Vous qui faites l'endormie" was chilling. The Russian baritone Alexey Markov, who made a hit as Prince Andrei in the Met's War and Peace a few seasons back, was in splendid voice as Valentin, Marguerite's brother, especially in the tender aria "Avant de quitter ses lieux." And the mezzo Julie Boulianne added a fine turn in the trousers role of Siebel with a lovely if rather fast-tempo Flower Song.
The Met chorus, dressed alternately in white lab coats or as demons staggering about like an army of zombies, sang Gounod's magnificent choral pieces beautifully and the Met orchestra, conducted by Alain Altinoglu, was virtuosic as always.