Starting as they intend to go on, English National Opera's 2010-11 season opened with a new production – just one of ten this season – of Gounod's Faust. It's a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which now has a regular partnership with ENO, and benefited from a Broadway production team including Des McAnuff (director) and Robert Brill (designer). With Music Director Edward Gardner in the pit and star British tenor Toby Spence in the title role, the evening was in safe hands, even if it didn't always promise everything it delivered.
McAnuff's concept for the production is to update it to the first half of the twentieth century. Faust is not just a romantic lover but also a scientist, his portrayal connected to the physicist Jacob Bronowski. The latter abandoned physics after seeing how his work resulted in total devastation at Nagasaki, and became a humanist. Here, Faust travels back in time in order to try and live his life again. He goes back and sees the two World Wars; destruction is everywhere, and everything – including his love for Marguerite – comes to a bad end. Although his pact with the Devil is overcome by his love, he still meets with death in the final moments of McAnuff's production, which return us to the gloomy laboratory of the opening scene.
There are some striking and hugely effective aspects of the staging. Act 1 is brilliantly evocative: one can see how Faust the scientist is completely disillusioned with life, and the use of video imagery adds a glossy Broadway dimension. The dramatic moments are well staged, and the use of spiral staircases and period costumes is usually effective, retelling Faust's life story with imagination. Nevertheless, for my taste the Bronowski/Nagasaki element is too hinted-at and not pronounced enough. There's one evocation of a mushroom cloud, but I think it could be more. The portrayal of the Devil is underwhelming, with a cream suit and not much of an entrance, and likewise the evocation of Hell is rather tame (its few inhabitants are dressed like faceless Les Mis characters). Marguerite's prayer is more convincing, but for me the constant use of a basic shell for the set didn't quite work: though it could be seen that the entire action of the piece takes place in the laboratory of Faust's mind, the staircases and gantries did not lend themselves to the intimacy of the love scenes. Nor was the inn really evoked with enough atmosphere.
Still, it's a highly professional, extremely watchable evening, deeply enhanced by the superstar Faust of Toby Spence. Here was a superb performance on almost every level, with the money notes, the lyricism, the clear diction, the colour, the intelligence, the looks and the acting ability that the role needs. Considering this is such a step up for Spence in terms of the vocal weight of the repertoire, he seemed largely at ease: it might have been a stretch for him, but he was completely convincing in the part.
Less convincing was Melody Moore's Marguerite. Her rendition of the Jewel Song was heavy-going and she was ill-matched with Spence both physically and vocally; it was difficult to believe in their passion for one another, which somewhat upset the balance of the evening for me. However, after the second interval Moore's performance improved, partly because she was better suited to the more melodramatic aspects of the drama, and partly because the vocal line lay more in the warmer section of her voice.
Iain Paterson's Mephistopheles was curious, because he was at ease at the top of his voice but did not have the deep bass notes that the part really requires. He was just too nice a chap to be the Devil, and the lack of weight at the bottom undercut his vocal interpretation, even though his charisma and commitment as a performer was never in doubt. Anna Grevelius was perhaps too feminine to be a convincing Siebel, but Pamela Helen Stephens was excellent both vocally and dramatically as Martha. I was disappointed by Benedict Nelson's Valentin, because he lacked the lyricism and secure top register that the role demands.
Edward Gardner led a secure performance in the pit, especially in the score's more mercurial passages; I would have liked slightly more warmth and more urgency at times, but his reading was generally convincing. The chorus was less impressive: in spite of their large numbers, their volume wasn't especially rousing, and their diction was often vague.
Yet in spite of some of these problems, this was a very enjoyable and generally strong evening for the company, promising good things to come in the next few weeks with a revival of The Makropulos Case and a new production of Radamisto.
Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Faust runs until 16 October at ENO.