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SEEN AND HEARD UK OPERA
Gounod, Faust (new production): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera. Conductor: Edward Gardner. London Coliseum, London, 18.9.2010 (JPr)
Production Picture © Catherine Ashmore
The problem of Konzept stagings of opera arises again here with Des Anuff’s new production of the mid-nineteenth century Gallic warhorse Faust. Gounod and his librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, did not use Goethe’s Faust as their moral anti-hero and present us with a philosophical treatise but instead based their story on Faust’s romantic longings for Marguerite, something that has its origins in Goethe but does not occur in the ‘Faust’ legend. Gounod’s Faust has the potential to be simply an old-fashioned kitsch entertainment of the kind that modern managements and directors cannot leave alone. In this – not be taken seriously - romantic comedy with a devilish twist, one great melody follows another and no opportunity is lost for a song and dance. At the end, good triumphs over evil and Marguerite (here in the surtitles as Margarita) is rescued by God from damnation accompanied by a choir of angels proclaiming her salvation.
This is only director Des McAnuff’s second opera production following a Wozzeck for San Diego Opera in 2007. He is better known for musicals like Jersey Boys and Tommy and therefore knows a bit about ‘song & dance’. The ENO’s publicity has it that ‘the multi-award-winning director of Jersey Boys … re-imagines the great French composer's classic, which contains some of opera's biggest hits including the stirring Soldier's Chorus …’. I cannot imagine this night at the opera appealing to the clientele of jukebox musicals or to listeners of opera’s ‘greatest moments’ on Classic FM.
In an interview in the programme, Des McAnuff explained his thoughts on this co-production with the New York Met by mentioning that he knew Rita Bronowski, the widow of the noted anthropologist and writer, Jacob Bronowski, who readers of a certain age will remember from the British TV series, The Ascent of Man. Following Jacob Bronowski’s visit to Nagasaki after the dropping of the atomic bomb it seems ‘he was so moved and distraught’ that never practiced physics again. So McAnuff’s Faust is an ageing atomic scientist who has realised that his pursuit of learning has brought the whole world to the edge of the abyss. He bemoans missing out on love and life, curses science and faith and is determined to poison himself. He calls on the Devil and Mephistopheles appears and promises him a return to the innocence of youth and perhaps a reunion with lost-love, Marguerite. In McAnuff’s staging there is more than a hint of Scrooge-The Musical with Mephistopheles acting as the ‘Ghost of Christmas Past’ - and there is also a clear reference to the ‘Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come’ in the giant figure of the Grim Reaper who trundles onto the stage at one point during the evening. So McAnuff sets us off back in time to when Faust himself was younger and where in Act II the soldiers are off marching to the trenches in France during World War I. They return battle-scarred in Act IV for the Soldiers’ Chorus.
Robert Brill, McAnuff’s frequent collaborator, gives us basically a neon-lit single set of a solid steel construction - which I am reliably informed is their trademark. It has walkways and stage-deep spiral staircases that reminded me of the DNA helix. The walkways allow angels-as-laboratory-assistants to appear when required and Faust and Mephistopheles (or their doubles) walk up and down the staircases: often for no apparent reason other than to give them something to do.
We see a hint of Nagasaki after the bomb was dropped in Act I and briefly some bombs hang down from the grid. Later we see occasional flashes of light from detonations and a projection of a mushroom cloud but this is a far as the Robert McAnuff/ Brill ‘concept’ is taken: and mostly what we get is a well-choreographed semi-staging. There is some videography involving the Faust and Marguerite’s faces, a door seen from time to time, the silhouette of a house, a sewing machine, a bed, the sink in which Marguerite drowns her baby and a water cooler – and that’s about it. Surprisingly, most of the opportunities for stage magic are wasted, particularly so with the water cooler which could have been shown filling with the red wine that Mephistopheles conjures up in Act II rather than just dispensing it. For the ‘Walpurgis Night’ opening of Act V, the demons are quite appropriately shown as disfigured victims of radiation but as Marguerite ascends a ‘stairway to heaven’ at the end of the opera, McAnuff’s concept again ‘loses the plot’.
Orchestrally, it’s in the relatively safe hands of the reliable ENO Orchestra under Edward Gardner whose unshowy, no nonsense approach gives us a dramatically effective and eloquent - if rather subdued – account of Faust. Gardner is not given to bombast it seems and he shapes everything with an ear for suppleness and grace. Though he is not (yet?) a Wagnerian, he clearly hears echoes of Wagner in the frequent passages of bold chromatic harmonies and rhythmic spaciousness in Gounod’s melodic music. Unfortunately in Act II, the ensemble between pit and chorus on stage came adrift somewhat and the ENO chorus did not always rise to the challenge that this Faust sets them. They will need to improve a great deal before Parsifal later this season.
Vocally, performances during the evening were uneven. Although the opera is sung in English there is no excuse for not understanding the French style of singing that should be used throughout. The worst offender was Toby Spence’s Faust and although his singing could be ardent and lyrical at times, his sound was often colourless, his phrasing choppy and the way he built up carefully to full-voiced high notes seemed rather like a safety measure to ensure they were pitched correctly. Melody Moore developed into a vulnerable and deeply affecting Marguerite as her role darkened but she does not have the agile coloratura voice that the ‘Jewel Song’ demands and this was not sung well. In the first Faust I saw at Covent Garden in 1974, the leading singers were Stuart Burrows and Kiri Te Kanawa and in the 1980s I also heard Alfredo Kraus sing Faust. I don’t want to seem a ‘Grumpy Old Man’ but I return to the matter of ‘style’ and although Ms Moore was certainly better than Mr Spence they should not sound like they were crooning in their Act II duet as though they were in Phantom of the Opera. That takes the connection with musicals a bit too far, I think.
The role of Valentin, Marguerite's protective brother who goes off to war, is relatively small, but Benedict Nelson made the most of cursing his sister in Act IV and generally sang with soaring lyricism from his accomplished baritone voice. The excellent mezzo-soprano Anna Grevelius was suitably endearing as the young man Siebel, who has a crush on Marguerite. There was also a memorable cameo from Pamela Helen Stephen as Marthe, one of Marguerite’s friends.
But the production remains a major disappointment and it is a long evening which might have benefitted from some (extra?) judicious cuts. However if opera lovers have not heard the opera at ENO before - or at Covent Garden in David McVicar’s recent production - they should not be put off from seeing it, if only to hear Iain Paterson’s role debut as Mephistopheles. He is the one singer to really enhance his reputation in this production: his Mephistopheles is more like some harlequin than the devil since his evil machinations are carried out with a grim irony of which he is only too self-aware. The incomparable Norman Treigle sang this role in my first Faust and although Iain Paterson currently lacks some of the bass resonance required for it, he compares favourably to this great singer from an earlier generation and to John Tomlinson, an equally wonderful Mephistopheles of more recent times.