Tradition Reimagined Revives an Old Favorite

The latest resurrection of Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera-staged with compulsive vividness-employs a cast that for uniform brilliance may surpass that of any Faust in the company’s 122-year history. That’s no mean feat: The opera has been performed at the Met more than 700 times; indeed, it inaugurated the old Met’s house in 1883.

Gounod’s retelling of the old fable about a 16th-century astrologer who makes a pact with the Devil eschews Goethe’s revolutionary ruminations in favor of supernatural hocus-pocus, toy-soldier militarism, village frivolity and Christian treacle. A monument to French bourgeois sentimentality circa 1859 (when the opera was first performed), it presents a considerable challenge: how to honor the work’s period charm while appealing to modern tastes.

Behind a weathered proscenium arch that might have been found in a Parisian flea market, director Andrei Serban and costume and set designer Santo Loquasto have given us a traditional Faust that every French schoolboy would love-from the hero’s tome-filled study, to the rose-strewn garden outside Marguerite’s half-timbered house and the steely prison of her damnation. At the same time, they have reimagined Faust for a generation weaned on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. This Méphistophélès arrives with a retinue of prancing devilettes-Cats with sequins. The village fair includes more hookers and cancan dancers (as well as a dancing gorilla and a dancing bear) than Toulouse-Lautrec would have known what to do with. The rejuvenated hero goes out into the world dressed all in white, as if for a Busby Berkeley musical. Marguerite’s resurrection takes place in an ether inhabited by angels so saccharine you’d blush to find them on a Christmas card.

Mr. Serban, whose staging of Benvenuto Cellini last season set a new standard for clutter, reportedly had many more such “touches” in mind before they were blue-penciled by the Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe. I wish the pencil had been even heavier. Faust is a masterpiece of melodic beauty, textural variety (from the martial to the gossamer) and contrast between ardor and menace. It ranks among the sturdiest confections in French opera. With James Levine conducting his first performance of the work and showing an exquisite sense of its telling details and orchestral colors, this is, above all, a Faust for the ear.

On opening night, Roberto Alagna demonstrated that he has no rival today for sustaining the unaffected rapture essential to the French romantic tenor style (though he’s showing an unfortunate tendency to approach high notes with an effortful “lift”). His Marguerite was the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski, whose dark-hued vocal sheen gave unusual complexity to a heroine who can often seem a bewildered ninny. As her brother Valentin, the glamorous Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky brought down the house with his richly burnished “Avant de quitter ces lieux.” The American mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson sang the trouser role of Siébel with a splendid sincerity that belied the character’s usual haplessness.

But in the end, Faust stands or falls on its Devil. René Pape, the towering German bass with the figure of a pole vaulter, the agility of a panther and a voice of thunder, isn’t merely magnetic, he’s all-enveloping. There was nothing insinuating or even sinister about his Méphistophélès-there was simply implacable power. Disobedience was not an option when Mr. Pape was onstage. He and his colleagues in the cast (including the beautifully rehearsed choristers) have given the Met’s oldest warhorse another lease on life.