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Opera: A devilishly camp good time

A FAR corner of the underworld, crimson walls and a skylight to heaven, the distant sound of celestial trumpets and choirs of angels. But who's that snoring in the royal box? Dark, suave, moustached; a man of substance, an aristocrat; white tie and tails. Which opera has he been sleeping through? Surreptitiously he checks his programme. It's strange that it bears his name. Stranger still that he now whistles for attention, with a clutch of demons scuttling to his aid. A ladder facilitates his unseemly descent to the stage. And then you spot the tail. Mephistopheles is calling the tune.

And it's that capricious conceit that lies so squarely at the heart of English National Opera's first staging of Arrigo Boito's opera. It won't be to everyone's taste. In fact, taste doesn't come into it. Boito - Verdi's librettist on his last two masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff - was nothing if not audacious in his spirited adaptation of Goethe's Faust. The boldness (remember, this was 1868) with which he sought to knock the moral stuffing out of Goethe, to promote Mephistopheles, to exploit his wiliness, his cynicism, his potential as an irreverent stand-up comic - the Archie Rice of the underworld - confounded all expectations of the day. That he bit off more than he could chew and more than his audience could swallow, that his fabulously tasteless score comes at you like a parody of every operatic cliche, is irresistible for the director, Ian Judge. He's a man after Mephistopheles' heart; sceptical, unsubtle, a bit of a showman. And camp? Is he ever.

Even as Mephistopheles is enjoying his regular audience with the Almighty, the heavenly host are assembling like some Fellini-esque stunt. They sport rose-tinted spectacles (seeing the light daily can play havoc with sensitive eyes) and the very latest in gold-plated haloes and wing accessories. Boito's highly innovative Prologue is purple with choral splendour and the heavy scent of incense, its climactic paean buttressed with heaven- storming extra brass. Grand opera boasts precious little that is grander. But Mephistopheles is not about to take it seriously, and neither is Judge. No sooner has the final chord died, when the heavenly host are brazenly peeling off their vestments to reveal themselves as prostitutes, punks and neo-Nazis. It is Easter Sunday in an unspecified German town and Mephistopheles (thinly disguised as a black friar, smoke seeping from beneath his cassock) is laughing all the way to the abyss.

I somehow doubt that Boito ever imagined that his smooth-talking, mischief- making anti-hero would, in the fullness of time, collude with so kindred a spirit as Judge. Together they look on as Faust falls for the Helen of Troy nonsense; they party their way through the witches' sabbath, mindful of its silliness. The designer John Gunter and the lighting designer Simon Corder go for the tawdry look. It's the kind of production, dare I say it, that the piece so richly deserves.

And yet, for all its vulgarity, it sounds good. Alastair Miles is the pinstriped boulevardier from hell, a quartet of naked demons somersaulting to his every whim. It's a sharp and snazzy performance, characteristically well-focused vocally. David Rendall is Faust, his vocal delivery blessed with an idealistic ring. And Susan Patterson is a vocally robust, big- hearted Margareta, caged like a circus animal for the "prison" aria, with Boito's sinuous and far-reaching coloratura boldly contradicting her physical confinement. But this is a big party for the ENO chorus, and, in all their guises, they were lustily effective. As witches and warlocks they came primed with balloons and party poppers, though they took all their cues from the very able conductor Oliver von Dohnanyi and not from our eponymous trickster, who at one point forced his way along the front row of the stalls recklessly brandishing an illuminated baton. What the devil did he think he was playing at?