Faust, ENO: review

ENO
Dir: Des McAnuff
Cond: Edward Gardner

“He who does not love music does not deserve to be called a human being; he who merely loves it is only half a human being; but he who makes music is a whole human being.” These words, written by Johann Goethe, have been an open invitation to composers wishing to set his texts to music.

Frenchman, Charles Gounod, is one such. Taking Goethe’s tale of a man who strikes a pact with the devil as a starting point, Gounod created an opera not so much about damnation as about devotion, less concerned with learning than romance. This ENO production, directed by Des McAnuff (who directed Jersey Boys) and conducted by Edward Gardner, shifts the action to a period which spans both World Wars. McAnuff makes a half-hearted attempt to draw links between Faust’s quest for scientific knowledge and the development of the atomic bomb but is best when concentrating on the romance.

As the eponymous hero, Toby Spence is commanding: he has the unusual task of having to age both forwards and backwards. He manages it brilliantly, disappearing behind a cloud of smoke and then almost instantly reappearing (in Stars in Their Eyes fashion) which golden locks and a youthful spring in his step. Spence’s enunciation is cut-crystal clear and his rich tone brings ardour to the music. His scenes with Melody Moore, as Marguerite, are moving in their intimacy and elegantly staged by McAnuff.

Faust Gounod ENOAs in any version of the Faust tale, Mephistopheles, played by Iain Paterson, steals the show. The diabolic dance he leads in Act Two (with angular choreography from Kelly Devine) is the highlight of the evening. As a swaggering aristocrat, Paterson is all suave sophistication but could have played up to the devilish stereotype even more. His entrance, for example, was simply through a door. Not a sniff of brimstone.

This reluctance to dive into the histrionics of Hell resulted in a few disappointments. A scene billed as a sort of infernal orgy (Walpurgis Night) is little more that dancers in rags writhing abound a bare table. And Faust’s damnation is over in a matter of seconds.

Robert Brill’s set has some nice touches – the symmetrical spiral staircases are incorporated well into the action – but it fails to hold its own in the Coliseum’s cavernous space. The actors too look lost on the vast stage and McAnuff’s clumsy staging of the first two Acts cannot disguise this. Other directorial interpolations seem gratuitous: a giant puppet of a soldier strolls on in the second act adding nothing but confusion to proceedings. Computer generated images on the back wall looked amateur – especially when roses appeared, only to dissolve as Mephistopheles claimed to conjure them.

The singing cannot be faulted and the ENO orchestra, under Edward Gardner, bring out a kaleidoscope of colours in Gounod’s writing. But this production ultimately disappoints: it is neither a melodramatic tale of damnation nor a convincing moral fable on the reach of modern science.

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  1. October 13th, 2014
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