Gounod Faust, English National Opera, London Coliseum


The twin themes of Science and Morality loom so large in the Faust legend that it comes as no big surprise that the American-born director Des McAnuff should be thinking of and alluding to Robert J Oppenheimer.

Yes, Dr. Atomic is back at the Coliseum, this time with more hummable tunes, and yes, it’s an idea with legs and one which undoubtedly gives Gounod’s old warhorse – with its themes of life, love, and war – an unsettlingly new lease of life. But because McAnuff is, amongst other things, a hugely successful director of Broadway musicals (and Gounod’s Faust has more than a touch of old-world pizzazz about it) were we not expecting a little more wow factor from this season-opening co-production with the New York Met? The first thing we see is a looming monochrome image of the aging Faust (Toby Spence) and what initially looks like a photograph suddenly blinks. Could it be that in that blink of an eye something went missing?

McAnuff’s “between the wars” staging sets us down in Faust’s laboratory (designer Robert Brill). A neon-lit steel gantry flanked with spiral staircases suggests an underground environment where science plays God with life and death. There’s only one way to go and that’s up – but it’s not until the ever-dapper Mephistopheles (Iain Patterson) invites Faust and, by implication, us to be guests of honour at Walpurgis Night that this place is revealed as a moral hell and Lucifer’s demons are non other than the charred walking dead of Faust’s atomic Armageddon. In a shameless crib from Penny Woolcock’s production of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic the chorus of scene-shifting laboratory assistants bear witness to the great “lightning flash” from the East.

These, though, are smart ideas and McAnuff’s execution is characteristically sharp and clear – though the filmic fluidity of the show might have been sharper and cleaner with a little less manual furniture moving. But whilst one applauds McAnuff for not getting in the way of the musical drama (splendidly chronicled by Edward Gardner) the big moments do lack theatrical excitement and not until we arrive at Marguerite’s apotheosis and the “stairway to paradise” moment is there a real frisson of visual and aural grandeur with the ENO chorus at full tilt.

The three principal roles need a great deal of singing and ENO haven’t short-changed us. Toby Spence in the title role delivers an abundance of visceral thrills from the high-lying tessitura of the writing, though I should like to have heard more of the French sensibility (even in English) in his singing. Surely the high C of his beautiful act three romance should be more bel canto (that is, mezza voce) than can belto?

Melody Moore (Marguerite) has a lovely rounded mezzo quality in the middle of her voice - a quality which she now needs to carry to the very top. It is a bit of a stretch for her as the role darkens though paradoxically this is where the voice really comes into its own and not as you might expect in the “Jewel Song” in which I hoped McAnuff might uncover a touch more “glitter and be gay” irony.

Iain Patterson (Mephistopheles) has grim irony written into every bar and notwithstanding a few bass notes out of his comfort zone he sings with resounding relish of the gallows humour, nodding the wink to his old mate, the grim reaper. It’s not a bad night for him.


Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
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.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk