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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

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