There seem to be three reasons why directors tamper with operas today: (1) To try to freshen them up and make them more "relevant". (2) To try to put more (paying) bums on today's (declining) seats. (3) To allow scope for the "creative" contribution of the director.
That's all fine, for minor works. But when it comes to the masterworks, let them speak and sing for themselves.
Gounod's Faust is not Goethe's masterpiece, but it's far from a minor work either. Gounod/Barbier/Carré reduce most of the depth and dimensionality of Goethe's Faust to just the seduction and redemption of Marguerite. Faust himself is downsized to a somewhat ambivalent libertine. No sign of the doctor fallen from the heights of scholarly inquiry with which he had become disillusioned to try his hand at the ordinary layman's love-making that he felt he may have missed. Not much trace of the bargain of pawning his soul for the second chance. And a lot more exalted Christian prudery sanctified as virtue in the devout Gounod's version than in the more worldly and universalist Goethe's.
Yet there is more than enough of the universal in Gounod's Faust to make it unnecessary to strain to make it more "relevant." Believers or non-believers, we can still understand that many once considered it a big deal to seduce, inseminate and abandon a naive girl. And even more immediate today is our horror at how cruelly she was treated for her "crime" by others, especially her beloved brother. We can even still understand -- though we cannot endorse or condone -- the brother's anguish at his sister's "fall." (And, no, we need not view this portrayed en travesti as islamic honor killings in order to get the point.)
Fortunately, most of this manages to get through in the Met's current Faust, directed by Des McAnuff. The way he chose to obtrude with a new "premise" (inspired by Dr. Jacob Bronowski's renunciation of physics upon seeing Nagasaki) was in recasting Doctor Faust's learned inquiries as 20th century atomic bomb-making rather than medieval alchemy and magic.
Well, yes, that certainly makes it more current and relevant, but does it make sense? The destruction wrought on Nagasaki was real enough, and horror at having contributed to it is certainly universally understandable. But what does it mean to renounce this destruction in favour of the goading of the gonads? Goethe's Faust abandons airy scholarship because it has not brought him the satisfaction he had sought; Gounod's Faust turns instead to seeking it in earthly seduction. But what, exactly, is the deal with McAnuff's Dr. Strangelove? Is he trying to make amends for Nagasaki, or to make matters worse?
We don't have to worry about these superadded fine points during most of the opera, however; they are obtruded only at the very beginning (where they puzzle, but otherwise do not matter, nor meddle) and at the very end -- but there they do pose a bit of a problem. For when Marguerite eludes the long haul in Club Mephistopheles, because she is forgiven by the Almighty both for her original "sin" and for the madness and infanticide to which she was driven by all her pious unforgiving friends and family (with the exception of the youth who loved and lost but never condemned her) -- the chorus of angels that cheer her up to the heavens is sung by legions of the lab-coated scientists that kept appearing here and there during the entire performance.
So it's not forgiveness (whether Christian or generic) that triumphs and redeeems, but what? And why? And how does Nagasaki and disenchantment with research fit in all this?
Go figure. As long as it has that note of "relevance," filled the seats, and brought due attention to the director, who cares?
Especially since (apart from the arbitrary atheistic irony of the ascent at the end) Gounod and the wonderful performers and conductor were nevertheless able to successfully reanimate this 19th century magic and alchemy yet again in the 21st.