Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Toby Spence and Iain Paterson [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera]
29 Sep 2010

Faust by ENO

Perhaps because the rather stolidly Victorian character of both its music and its morality, Gounod’s Faust has been out of fashion in the UK in recent decades, and owes a debt to David McVicar and his darkly Gothic production for the Royal Opera in 2004 (now, at last, available on DVD) for the restoration of its footing in the standard repertoire.

Charles Gounod: Faust

Toby Spence, Melody Moore, Iain Paterson, Benedict Nelson, Anna Grevelius, Pamela Helen Stephen. Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Des McAnuff; Set Designer: Robert Brill; Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford; Choreographer: Kelly Devine; Video Designer: Dustin O'NeillEnglish National Opera, London Coliseum, September 2010.

Above: Toby Spence and Iain Paterson

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera

 

ENO has entrusted its new production to Des McAnuff, best-known in London for the musical Jersey Boys which is currently enjoying a long run at the Prince Edward Theatre. The only toe he has thus far dipped in the operatic water was a production of Wozzeck in San Diego last year — not a piece that would come automatically to mind for a novice opera director. An eclectic history, promising more than some of the guest directors engaged by ENO in the recent past. McAnuff fixes the starting point of the opera in a WW2 atomic bomb laboratory. It is easy to believe how an ageing scientist would be left feeling unfulfilled after devoting his life and career to an inherently cold-blooded and inhuman vocation.

Faust’s reversion to youth appears to take him back to the early days of WW1 — though a few obviously intentional anachronisms make the period somewhat indistinct — and initially it is a romanticised vision of jolly carousing soldiers with their girls in dirndl skirts and flouncy blouses. The love scene is idealised even further, with intense coloured lighting, and flowers appearing to spring up at will on the projected backdrop. From that point forwards the scales start to fall from Faust’s eyes and time seems to be sped up; the colour is blanched from the scene, Marguerite seems to age several years in the few months that elapse between Acts 3 and 4, and even more between then and the final scene. The perky soldiers of the Act 2 tavern scene are almost unrecognisable when they return from duty, old and bent and going crazy with shell-shock.

Faust_ENO_03.gifMelody Moore and Iain Paterson

In the title role, Toby Spence was a revelation. His attractive stage presence, clarity of delivery and impeccable diction have never been in question, but Faust is a fuller lyric role than Spence has been used to, and I feared his voice may simply be swamped by the orchestra or vanish into the further reaches of the Coliseum’s vast auditorium. But in the event, the fullness of his sound at the very beginning had me worried that he might be over-singing, and I was relieved when the sound seemed to settle down, easily big enough for the occasion but retaining his trademark bright, youthful sound, right up to a splendidly confident high C in ‘Salut, demeure’. It is not the most flexible or nuanced sound, nor does it sound French — I’m not sure it’s possible to when singing in English translation — but it was confident, romantic and hugely enjoyable.

Iain Paterson was a congenial Mephistopheles, more gentleman than devil I felt, and he’s got the stage presence for the role. Although his lowest notes lack power (he’s a bass-baritone rather than a bass) he turned in an exceptionally stylish vocal performance.

Faust_ENO_01.gifMelody Moore and Toby Spence

The American soprano Melody Moore made a disappointing first impression as Marguerite (rendered in the surtitles as Margarita, though the principals seemed to be approximating the French pronunciation); there is something invulnerable and unyielding about her vocal quality which makes her difficult to engage with, and she made hard work of the Jewel Song. She did come into her own in the final scene, where the same qualities that had earlier been frustrating made for an effectively steadfast ‘Anges purs’.

Benedict Nelson’s Valentin was secure and simply effective in ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’, and Anna Grevelius’s charmingly androgynous Siebel was beautifully-sung.

Faust_ENO_04.gifIain Paterson and Pamela Helen Stephen

Ed Gardner struck the right balance with the score, neither too heavy-handed in the rhythmic numbers nor too over-indulgent in the lyrical ones. Only ‘Le veau d’or’ didn’t quite have the drive to take flight.

McAnuff’s production worked for me for the most part, though it was disappointing that he opted to cut the Walpurgisnacht ballet altogether — all that remained of the scene was an episode in which Mephistopheles shows Faust a group of tortured souls writhing round a table. If going down the historically-informed opera ballet route doesn’t appeal (and frankly, why would it?) surely the ballet is the greatest opportunity for a director and his choreographer to add to the audience’s understanding, or to crystallize their production concept in the form of a vignette?

At the end, with Marguerite redeemed and Faust dragged down by Mephistopheles through a Don Giovanni-style trapdoor, we see the elderly Faust appearing in his laboratory, collapsing after apparently having drained the cup of poison from the start of the opera. Was his whole adventure into youth and corruption, then, just the hallucination of a poisoned and dying man? The elixir of youth to which Mephistopheles transforms Faust’s deadly draught is poison of one sort or another, whether its effect be physical or moral, and either way, Faust ends up back where he started.

Ruth Elleson © 2010

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):