Posts Tagged ‘ Faust ’

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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A Fearsome Foursome of Fausts

London has become a city of damned souls.  And one damned soul, in particular: Dr John Faust is everywhere.Faust Young Vic by Vesturport and Reykjavík City Theater Faust’s tale is one of ambition, hell-fire and damnation: since medieval times his story has fascinated and horrified.

Goethe grappled with this anti-hero throughout his life, Marlowe made it into his most famous play and composers Berlioz and Gounod set it to music. More recently, the Fates have conspired to saturate 21st-century London with Faust’s tragedy. Why do we poor sinners keep coming back to it?

BBC Radio3 were the first to jump into the inferno with a production whose ambition was matched only by its protagonist’s. In September, Sam West starred as Goethe’s Faust opposite Toby Jones as Mephistopheles; Derek Jacobi and Anna Maxwell Martin also featured. ENO is currently staging Gounod’s five-act opera (based on Goethe’s text) and the Young Vic has an unorthodox circus production, again based loosely on Goethe.

Dr Faustus with MephistophelesThe Faust story first appeared in the Faustbuch in 1587 and was initially popular as a tale of damnation: a sixteenth-century scandal story. But if the original medieval tale was one of religious finger-wagging, Goethe had a completely different agenda. His Faust is an idealist: like Marlowe’s creation, Goethe’s hero seeks knowledge and self-realization.

Good and evil, black and white, innocence and guilt: Goethe and Marlowe blurred these previously impermeable boundaries. In doing so they created dramatic texts which are more relevant now than ever.

Marlowe, who was accused of being an atheist*(among other things), had little interest in black and white morality. Instead, his play is a tragedy: his hero is not evil, but human; the tragedy springs not from an evil soul, but Faust’s hunger for knowledge.

The relentless quest for knowledge is familiar to us. Modern microscopes and telescopes have opened new visual worlds, scientists have delved into the workings of our own bodies and developments in health care mean we are living longer than ever.

Only last month, Stephen Hawking declared that science has displaced God. Marlowe’s Renaissance man would be eminently at home in our world of scepticism, science and selfishness. Faust’s desire to be young again (in Goethe’s reading) is a pre-figuring of our own society’s desire to look youthful. Marlowe’s Faust asks to meet Helen (of the long legs) of Troy – the most beautiful woman ever to have lived: of course he didn’t have the modern men’s mag, Playboy (…on second thoughts, I won’t add a hyperlink there), to turn to.

Faust is a thoroughly modern man: disillusioned with life, nihilistic and solipsistic. His story’s current vogue is no coincidence: modern audiences identify with Faust, his temptations are our own, his desires are ones we recognize. The chilling lesson for modern audiences is that we no longer need God to damn us: we already do that ourselves.

*in the Baines note: “A note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of gods word”