At some point during the planning of Des McAnuff's production of Faust, a decision must have been made to take Gounod seriously.
Whether seriousness is what English National Opera had in mind for its season-opener is difficult to say. (The publicity has made much of McAnuff's hit Jersey Boys, and rather less of his Wozzeck.) But where David McVicar served up a salt-sweet confection of Second Empire carnality for the Royal Opera House in 2004, with pregnant ballerinas, a cartwheeling hero and a cross-dressing Mephistopheles, McAnuff gives us shell-shocked soldiers, a mushroom cloud, and a protagonist stricken with shame at his part in the invention of the atom bomb.
Written with one foot in the organ-loft and the other in the orchestra pit, Gounod's opera is at once too delicate and too cumbersome to support McAnuff's concept. The production opens, and largely remains in, a mid-20th-century laboratory. As the victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima trudge past a water cooler, serenaded by white-coated angels with clip-boards, the elderly Faust (Toby Spence) prepares to take his own life. His despair is short-lived. With miniature fireworks in both hands and a magical cane, up pops Mephistopheles (Iain Paterson), looking like a Mexican drug-baron with a side-line as a children's entertainer, and the years roll back to 1914, where Marguerite (Melody Moore) is bidding goodbye to her priggish brother Valentin (Benedict Nelson) and his fellow soldiers.
Anachronisms flow fast and thick in Robert Brill's designs. The water cooler (invented in 1938) becomes a wine cooler with a wave of Mephistopheles' wand in Act II, while the laboratory drinking fountain (nuclear physics must be thirsty work) doubles up as a font and the grave of Marguerite's baby. Such details shouldn't matter, but if the opera trips unsteadily between spectacle and sentiment, often failing to do more than briefly pique our sympathy or tickle our ears until Marguerite's desperate chain of laments, McAnuff fails even to match its step.
Movement direction is particularly poor. The waltz is a drab, unsexy affair, the (wounded) Soldiers' Chorus deflated by poor traffic flow through a small door on wheels, Walpurgisnacht an undercatered dinner party for irradiated burns victims, Marguerite's apotheosis a weary trudge up several flights of stairs.
War is bad. We know that. But what of Faust himself? What of the supernatural? In an opera so dazzled by notions of pleasure and shame, only the latter emotion reaches beyond the pit. Under Edward Gardner, the orchestra plays with gilded austerity, reaching its own apotheosis in the duet of Act V. Moore's Marguerite seems too sensible a girl to be beguiled by bling, her singing stylish, intelligent and sincere. Spence's virile tenor is impressive, but he and Paterson are hampered by semaphore direction. When you have singers of this calibre, with diction this clear, it isn't necessary to make them point at a flower or a drink when these words come up in the text. The choral contribution is strong, and Anna Grevelius's Siébel the most attractive and sympathetic of a fine supporting cast, with Adrian Powter's Wagner an excellent cameo.
Banished from ENO's nuclear Faust, a host of wraiths and demons gathered instead at the Royal Festival Hall, where Vladimir Jurowski, Petra Lang and the London Philharmonic explored the spectral soundscape of Zemlinsky's six Maeterlinck songs and the brutal and blissful intimations of Mahler's Third Symphony. Zemlinsky's songs of death-obsessed sisters have a strange, oily sheen, now tumbling in angry chromatics, now silky and sly with disquieting glints of celeste and the sour wheeze of a harmonium. Lang related these symbolist legends like a nurse bent on terrifying her charges, her face pinched into a frown or stretched back in a dangerous snap of a smile. Her tone is occluded now, but her delivery is electrifying.
Mahler's Summer marched in with menacing force under Jurowski's brisk, sharp beat. No grand alpine vistas, no dozy mysticism, just the barely audible dust-print of the bass drum, a dance-like pulse, and textures of extreme contrast: biting cellos, woodwind trills like death rattles, heroic, declamatory brass. The second movement's Flowers of the Meadow danced with a blithe brilliance before Pan's mad shriek and the cool song of the off-stage horn. Lang's "O Mensch, gib Acht" seemed to have been dragged from the bowels of the earth, until the crisp Morning Bells of Trinity Boys Choir and the sopranos and altos of the London Philharmonic Choir herald the final redemptive glow of Love. A startling reassessment of this work, delivered with demonic intensity and radiant playing.
'Faust' (0871 911 0200) to 16 Oct
Anna Picard takes a sip of love-potion as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bill Viola and Peter Sellars interpret Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Festival Hall
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