Better the devil you know

OPERA The Damnation of Faust ENO, London

Meet Faust, doctor and philosopher. He's the one perched precariously on the wall of his bedsit. Looks like he's about to jump. One of nature's little men - bespectacled, grey, insignificant. His life hangs in the balance. It's a dreary existence, teetering from one book to the next, speaking your thoughts into a tape machine because no one else will listen. Poor devil. Ah, yes, he's the big, imposing chap in the flashy violet suit. Appears to be looking out for Faust, shadowing his every move. Treats the place like home. Sleeps in his bed. Makes sure he doesn't do anything foolish (that noose looks ominous). Doesn't appear to like religious music. Still, better the devil you know.

And the devil we know at the London Coliseum goes by the name of David Alden. The style is unmistakable, some would say old hat. But even old hat appears still to shock and offend some opera-goers' delicate sensibilities. The old tensions gnaw away, on stage and off. But Alden's favourite trick, of course, is to confound our expectations. So while Mark Elder and the ENO orchestra powered their way into the rip-roaring "Hungarian March", Faust and his devil were held in the balance, as it were, and Berlioz was not found wanting. But his "dramatic legend" is called The Damnation of Faust and, this being a David Alden production, the real fun and games begin when Faust says to Mephistopheles "let me see your magic"...

And so the weird and wonderful Berlioz finds a kindred theatricality in the weird and wonderful Alden, his quirky set and costume designers, Roni Toren and Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lighting wizard, Wolfgang Gobbel, pitching us into a mess of tattered dreams and tawdry imaginings. The devil's magic was always going to be fraudulent. A few cheap theatrics in exchange for Faust's soul. It was never going to be a good deal. Alden, true to form, makes it a very bad deal. The key is Goethe, of course. Alden (aka Mephistopheles) shows us the corruption of his idealism, the rich and privileged, the beer-swilling Fascists, the Berlin Wall graffiti: "FUCK FREIHEIT". Faust is blind to everything - except the woman of his dreams, who may or may not exist. He calls her name - Marguerite - but she's trapped in a telephone box, presumably awaiting his call.

In his dreams - cue the "Dance of the Sylphs" in gossamer strings - it's a leggy showgirl in high-heels who walks all over him. Alden's designer has devised a gigantic pair of cut-out legs gliding, high-stepping across the stage. In reality, Marguerite is a rather ordinary Hausfrau in a turquoise blue mac. But Mephistopheles has one more tacky card to play. In a mocking Vaudeville number, well suited to his dubious talents, he brings on his spirits: a motley troupe of tired, has-been third-raters - a Max Wall look-alike, a tarnished ballerina, a fire-eater who keeps setting himself alight. And thus he enchants the sleeping Marguerite. When she awakens, she's Berlioz's first and last love, the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson (at least, that's the allusion). And Faust is her Romeo. This is Alden at his cruellest and best. Romantic 19th-century notions mocked and parodied in such a way as to make the abandonment of this superannuated Juliet (a role she's so patently ill-suited for - right down to the ridiculous dress) all the more humiliating.

Caught before the curtain, in the unflattering public glare of a follow- spot, Louise Winter turned her great aria "D'Amour, l'ardente flamme" - one of Berlioz's most extraordinarily beautiful creations - into the most personal of dramatic scenas, born of big, generous, yearning phrases - you could almost feel her artistry grow in the singing of them. Bonaventura Bottone's voice has certainly grown - not just in size but in colour and interest. Looking here like a cross between Andre Previn and Woody Allen, he did well in a role which would once have been thought beyond his bantam- weight tenor. Willard White was, of course, dream casting. Omnipresent is the word, I think. And he sings, too. And Mark Elder. Something happens when he returns to the Coliseum pit. It's called atmosphere. Phrases lengthen, pianissimi (and nobody spins them like Berlioz does) intensify, and when the big bangs come - as in the "Ride to the Abyss" - my goodness, you feel as well as hear them. Chorus and orchestra were terrific.

Pandemonium a la Alden is a descent into the madhouse, with circus freaks and stripping nuns with exploding tits. And Faust is once again alone in his disillusionment, still teetering along the middle of the road, still looking for Marguerite - whoever and wherever she is. You've got to hand it to Alden. You go to the opera and you know you've been to the theatre.

Further perfs tomorrow, 16, 19, 23, 26, 30 April, 2 May. Booking: 0171- 632 8300

Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?