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 Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'