Faust as disillusioned nuclear scientist: it's a powerful concept. As the final curtain falls, Des McAnuff's Faust is expiring on his laboratory floor, having swallowed the poison he intended to take at the beginning, before the intervention of Mephistopheles: are the visions (such as they are) of hell and heaven sparked not so much by his jilting of the pregnant Marguerite as the question of the Almighty's judgment on the purpose of his life's work?
Well, we get a hint of this, but just a hint. If the programme hadn't contained a full-page photo of a nuclear explosion and if I hadn't talked to Toby Spence the other week, I'm not sure I'd have guessed what was going on. A co-production with the Met in NY, McAnuff's Faust at ENO has lots of good ideas, but a few that hold back the whole concept and prevent things from truly catching fire.
The flashback scenario, for instance: Mephisto doesn't renew Faust's youth in his present but winds the clock back about 30 years to the days of the First World War; so is our (anti)hero remembering, or is he in a parallel universe or...what? On a smaller scale, the appearance of a 21st-century water cooler, in which Mephisto turns water into wine, also proved a tad confusing for some who were trying to work out just where we were meant to be and when. I'm finding it a handy new way to define Postmodernism, though.
The music was the star, and the stars of the music were our tenor and our conductor, Messrs Spence & Gardner. Toby Spence's voice has undergone quite an evolution. There's a new steeliness, an easy strength of projection and a bright thrill of timbre - especially on the top notes, which he delivers with gleeful relish. He could so easily have turned into just another "English tenor"; but happily, he has gone well beyond. Will you welcome, please, that great rarity: a real romantic tenor who happens to be British. This was Toby's night, and I hope it will signal a whole new wave of great things for him.
Meanwhile, there was magic down t'pit: excellently judged conducting from Ed Gardner, manipulating the levels of tone like yoga postures, balancing, supporting, allowing lift and adding glow. Brilliantly co-ordinated pizzicati, too. Plaudits to Iain Paterson as Mephistopheles - despite suffering from "a severe chest infection", he was still the biggest character and the best communicator on the stage, even if a little over-affable to be a real devil. The best tunes aren't always the devil's in Gounod, but some of the best lines are: "I dressed in a hurry," a deadpan Mephisto tells Faust during his first scene, and we imagine the traditional mephistophelean environment in which that quick donning of a sharp pale suit might have taken place...
More high spots were Anna Grevelius's plucky Siebel, and some extremely good fencing (swords, not garden); the outsize projected close-up photos of Faust and Marguerite that frame the scenes, prone to abrupt blinking; and the soldier's chorus of returning wounded, evoking the pity of it all - a photo is taken and the flash of fire provokes an evident PTSD case to freak out. But while Melody Moore as Marguerite had some beautiful moments, she was outclassed on all sides.
And it was hard not to feel that this lurid, colourful, unashamedly OTT opera was being squeezed into a rather desultory, depressing framework that little reflected the nature of the piece itself. If you're going to do French romanticism, then please go for it - go all out for the colour and the conviction. Here both sacred and profane rang hollow - Walpurgis Night, stripped of its ballet, was a total non-event, the church choruses likewise and Marguerite went to her salvation trundling up a flight of stairs that looked as if it had been extracted from a Jubilee Line station.
And really...it would sound better in French. But everything always sounds better in French.
Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.
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