We went to see Faust on Tuesday. Kenneth Winters had a pretty accurate review in the Globe–the singers are generally good (Brett Polegato as Valentin somewhat more than good), but the real star is the orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin which impressed both with its virtuosity and in giving the music a sense of idiomatic Frenchness.

I’ve seen Faust performed as a play (twice: once in a really weird modern adaptation of Marlowe, and once in a Tarragon production of Goethe’s version) but I’d never seen Gounod’s opera before. The COC production aggressively attempts to modernize the feel of the piece–the sets are somewhat surreal pieces that work hard to avoid giving a sense that the action is happening at any particular place or time–but the story is fundamentally a 19th-century period piece. What it lacks–unlike, say, Puccini’s Butterfly–is any sense of the perspective of Marguerite, the girl whom Faust seduces. She goes from being the paragon of virginal purity, to the fallen woman rejected by all, and then (momentarily before her death) to the sinner redeemed by God’s grace, without ever being anything like an actual person. And as a result, the 20th-century audience ends up understanding Faust’s crime first and foremost as a violation of a set of 19th-century social mores that no longer quite have the same resonance as they did in the 19th century.

All of this is perhaps just an extended way of saying that Gounod is no Verdi or Puccini. But it’s interesting to think about what the story might have been, in the hands of a more adventurous composer and librettist.