Faust gets a last minute redemption

Berlioz never expected to see his 'Faust' on the stage. Nor, indeed, wearing a pullover straight from 'Terry and June' pullover
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Not being German, born and raised on Goethe or in thrall to Berlioz, I can live with ENO's new, knockabout production of The Damnation of Faust. But only just. It's an indulgent, largely irritating piece of work that turns a score I've always found direct and motivated into something where I started feeling for my watch after the first hour. With another-and- a quarter still to go, sans intermission, there are better ways to spend a Monday night.

But it's not wholly without point or interest, if you close an eye to the distractions. And the main interest is the sheer gall with which the director David Alden (for it is he: signs of the cross all round) sets out to deny the most fundamental expectations of the work. For example, in something called The Damnation of Faust, you might assume that Faust is damned. But no. Unless I've misread the staging entirely, Alden manages (by a trick of modern psychological insight) to pull off a last-minute redemption. Jolly decent of him, but not what Berlioz had in mind.

Of course, the composer's intentions are never high on the agenda of directors like Alden - with some excuse here, in that the composer's intentions have already been exceeded by staging the piece at all. The Damnation of Faust was written not as an opera but as a concert score, with a sense of pace and logic that don't quite square up to theatrical performance. Tracts of orchestral music pass with no requirement for action, sudden choral soundbites interject from nowhere - it's a kind of theatre, but essentially of the imagination.

David Alden's take on theatre of the imagination is to stage the whole piece inside Faust's mind; so the celebration of nature in the first scene becomes Faust imagining himself celebrating nature - and actually cowering, depressed, under a mattress in the corner of his room. This Faust is clearly no Romantic: he's a wretchedly suburban figure, straight out of Terry and June, except for also being a bachelor. The set (Roni Toren) is one of those off-the-peg visions of urban squalor that pass for chic in modern opera.

If you can cope with such wimpery, there's an effective piece of business to pass the time during the Hungarian March, where he edges along the walls of his room transferring books from one precarious pile to another. Academic life as purgatorial punishment. But a pathetic Faust causes problems when it comes to the romance with Marguerite; and Alden's only solution is to send the encounter up, as an Errol Flynn parody complete with onstage cinema audience. That the protagonists make love in a cupboard isn't easily explained, but it's the sort of stunt Alden enjoys (the Auerbachkeller scene has a transvestite in a fridge, to no more obvious purpose). And anyway, things are totally out of hand by now, with Mephistopheles's attendant spirits transformed into celebrity lookalikes (Max Wall, Joanna Lumley, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers) and a lot of slapstick nonsense that someone somewhere should be damned for, if not Faust.

The only pay-off here, though, comes to Mephistopheles, who seems to have no independent existence as a character, but to represent the dark shadow in Faust's mental makeup. It's Mephistopheles who gets consigned to oblivion - put down, presumably, by Faust's psychiatrist and a course of Prozac. Interesting ... if only Berlioz had thought of it.

With the odds so stacked against them, none of the four soloists in the Damnation make much of an impression. Willard White reinforces cultural stereotypes as a black Mephistopheles; Louise Winter is a harrassed Marguerite; and although Bonaventura Bottone gets points for sustaining the long, continuous sing of Faust so well, the unremitting feyness of his English- tenor tone becomes a trial.

In fact the only thing that really isn't a trial here is the orchestra under Mark Elder, who ensures that what you hear from the pit is the antithesis of what you see on stage. Secure, authoritative, everything in place, his handling of the score has the considered quality you'd get from Colin Davies, but with extra bite. Not quite as strong as when he came back for the ENO Tristan last year (that was Alden too!), it was enough to bring back memories of his old days at the Coliseum. As time passes, they seem ever more like some long-vanished golden era.

Peter Maxwell Davies had a sort of golden era in the Sixties and early Seventies, when he had established his presence as a radical but rooted voice in British music and was busy shocking the bourgeoisie with abrasive theatre pieces like Eight Songs for a Mad King. They weren't exactly deathless scores but they were distinctive, with recourse to themes and symbols that recurred like recipe ingredients. Betrayal, medievalism, anti-commerce, antichrists ... stir gently on a low heat and create your own.

With hindsight, you might have guessed that somewhere in the background to these pieces was indeed a giant cookbook from which everything derived. And so there was, conceptually: a crazy vaudeville called Resurrection, which was planned during the Sixties and then came to nothing - until 1987, when the score was sorted out and premiered (in German) at Darmstadt. I was there, and I remember it as grim.

Since then, the score has been recorded, from a concert performance in Manchester. But it has never been staged until last week, when a new production that will tour the Glasgow Mayfest opened in Vienna. The venue, appropriately, was the auditorium of a famous mental hospital; the piece was as off-the-wall as I remembered; and it still plays like a musical whoopie-cushion with 90-minute firing power.

The central character, called Hero, is a dummy. Literally. Under pressure to conform to the societal assumptions of a nightmare family, TV commercials, and assorted representatives of secular and spiritual orthdoxy, Hero's head explodes. He's then subjected to the surgical removal of his heart and genitals, but takes revenge by resurrecting as the antichrist.

More an idea than a story, it's a musical excuse for endless parodies. Old Maxwell Davies favourites like the foxtrot and Victorian hymn jostle for attention with hot gospel music, rock songs, medieval fragments - and it's all there: the preoccupations of the Sixties, itemised and catalogued. As a result, it feels like a museum-piece: a period artefact that missed its moment. But the music has a brazen liveliness, and though the jokes misfire, they do so with panache in this production: a joint-venture between the Austrian Wiener Taschenoper and the Belgian Muziektheater Transparant. Individually, the performances are unremarkable except for a freakishly fulsome Greek countertenor, Paul Zachariades, who plays Hero's mother en travestie. But there's a definite company spirit, shared by the orchestra, which has a punchy strength under the baton of a young Canadian conductor, Peter Bergamin. Whatever it takes to hold together wayward creativity like this, he has it - and in greater measure than you hear from the composer's own recording.

'Faust': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), continues Wed & Sat. 'Resurrection' plays Glasgow (0141 287 5000), 14-17 May.

Comments