This production of Gounod's masterpiece was clearly not created with the intention of being perfectly traditional, and I'm sure the director was prepared to offend some viewers with this idea of his. I purchased this DVD because I really wanted a filmed production, and this was one of the few available. I read what a lot of other viewers said about this particular production, and I was actually intrigued by what was said. The production certainly is different, and a few of the ideas are pretty out there.
What most people seem to dislike about this the most is the ending, but I believe they probably misunderstood it. The booklet inside the DVD case has a synopsis, and it still says that Marguerite goes to heaven at the end. What happens in this production is that instead of showing Marguerite's ascension to heaven, it cuts back to Faust, old again and suddenly waking up in his study from Act I. It then shows him standing up and wandering around, as if it had all been just a dream, then he opens the coffin that was laid there at the beginning, and Marguerite's headless corpse sits up and points a finger at him, just like all the other characters had pointed a finger at her in the church scene earlier. After this, Faust is embraced by what looks like a grim reaper, then sinks into the earth as he is dragged off to hell. What it seems people want to see at the very end of this opera is Marguerite's ascention into heaven. My guess is that this director figured that much was told by the music, and so Faust's fate was what should be depicted, which would be damnation. It is a darker, more grim ending, but I have to admit, if given a chance for what it is, I'd say it's actually a decent production. It certainly won't please everybody, but it certainly has its moments of being quite interesting.
One thing I doubt anyone will dispute about it is that the singers are wonderful. Francisco Araiza beautifully performs the title role; I believe he is perfect for it. He beautifully hits the high C in "Salut, demeure, chaste et pure", which is an impressive feat for any tenor, as far as I am concerned. Ruggero Raimondi is a fantastic Méphistophélès, as well. I, personally, prefer the role when played by a bass-baritone rather than a deep bass, and his voice is a good fit for it, in my opinion. There is an optional high note that I like, but he doesn't take in the first act, but I believe it is not often taken, anyway. Gabriela Benyachkova certainly performs the role as well as she could, and I give her credit for her input. She certainly has a fine voice, but I personally prefer the role to be portrayed by someone smaller and/or younger. Marguerite is depicted in the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré as a sweet, innocent little girl who has never committed sin or impurity until her encounter with Faust. As fine a singer as she is, I believe Benyachkova is a little too old to portray it the way it was traditionally intended to be done. When she is made a nun, though, she is more convincing as a character. I have to admit, however, I do not particularly like to see a little boy like Siebel falling in love with a nun the way he does in this production. As for the rest of the cast, Walton Grönroos is a very good Valentiin, and hits the high Gs beautifully
The idea of making her purity be due to the fact that she was a nun could potentially be passable, but I it isn't easy to make it work, mostly because of Siebel being in love with her, too. I acknowledge Ken Russell's attempt, though. It is could be interesting that Faust would end up falling in love with nun who is older, as he is still just an old doctor in a young lord's body, and perhaps the fact that she is a nun could show how Faust has it buried back in his conscience that he still believes in God and regrets what he has done. This is could be backed up by the fact that he is rude to Méphistophélès throughout the opera (constantly yelling things at him like "Va t'en!", which means "Go away!"), despite the work he does as Faust's servant.
There are some traditional elements of this opera that I hate to see go, including Marguerite's traditional portrayal, but the opera certainly has its moments. There were, however, a couple of things I admit I did not like, such as the placement of the Church Scene at the end of Act IV (after Valentin's death instead of before). This is not the point at which it occurs in the libretto, and it is even reinforced that it should not be where it is by the fact that Act IV Scene I (which is often omitted) is included in this production (which, by the way, I found surprising and worth appreciating; a scene included that is usually not is interesting to me) However, Marguerite says, "I'm going to the church to pray for my child and for him" at the end of this scene, which implies that she is going to the church after this. This suggests that the Church scene is about to happen, and audiences do not get to hear this scene performed often, anyway. Also, during Valentin's Death, he repeats, "Marguerite, soit maudite!", which Méphistophélès also sings in the Church Scene on a similar musical motive. I like it better when Valentin's is said afterward as a reference to what Marguerite heard in the church, rather than Méphistophélès' being a reference to Valentin's. The traditional placement of these scenes works better dramatically than the way done in this production, which is not very good writing. I also found it annoying that Marguerite is executed by the guillotine. Maybe historical accuracy was not much of a concern for the director, but it should be well-known enough that such an instrument was only used in public executions during the French Revolution. It's too big an anachronism for me to be willing to just ignore.
Since Act IV Scene I is included, I would like to have heard Siebel's aria, "Si Le Bonheur", and I was disappointed not to. However, I can forgive it's deletetion, as it usually is, anyway. Also, in Méphistophélès' "Song of the Golden Calf" ("Le veau d'or"), Raimondi accidentally sings the second verse twice. This, however, would only be noticeable to an opera singer or a musician who knows the piece extremely well, and it's still well sung, so I forgive him.
It would also have been nice to see the Walpurgis Night scene, but this is rarely performed in modern productions, anyway. I really wish the unions would not charge opera companies extra to use the house for longer; if it weren't for this, it would be possible for them to give longer productions, which might allow such scenes to be included. The Walpurgis Night scene is referenced in the recitative immediately proceeding Méphistophélès' serenade, and it is a fine sounding piece of music; I really wish I could see a production in which it would be included. Perhaps it may seem like a financial risk, but I believe that it would be a good idea to do it if a production is being filmed. People would much rather have more scenes to watch on a DVD that are not usually performed.
Overall, this production is good enough to get a 4/5 from me. It's not perfect, and it's certainly not exactly what everyone wants to see when they go to see Gounod's amazing work that was once the most frequently performed opera in all of Europe, but for what it is, it has it's good points, and I can find plenty of things about it that deserve to be appreciated.