Gounod Faust, English National Opera, London Coliseum

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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.