Better the devil you know

OPERA The Damnation of Faust ENO, London
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The Independent Culture
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