Faust, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, September 2010

As a university professor who has studied very esoteric subjects I appreciate Faust’s weariness with the ultimate point of his research. His willingness to bring everything to an abrupt end gives the devil a chance to intervene and allow him to recapture a lost youth with a girl he desires, but life and death are never quite that simple.

Melody Moore and Toby Spence as Marguerite and Faust

The main characters in this Gounod opera are Faust, Marguerite and Mephistopheles, and in a pre-performance talk at the Apple Store in Covent Garden someone asked who the main character is. The panel’s consensus was Mephistopheles — the devil has the best tunes, and he’s certainly the operative force in the opera. But in this performance the strongest characters were Toby Spence as Faust and Melody Moore as Marguerite. She sang beautifully with great purity of tone, and in the final scene as she achieves redemption through death her voice took on new power. Toby Spence sang with effortless lyricism, and being an attractive man who looks admirably young, his youthful rejuvenation was very striking. I also particularly liked Anna Grevelius as Faust’s student, Siebel. Mephistopheles was sung by Iain Paterson, whom I have seen perform very well in sympathetic roles such as Amonasro in Aida, and the first lieutenant in Billy Budd, but as the devil he lacked power and menace, and didn’t quite have the lower register that this role requires. Fine diction from all three main performers, though less so from the chorus, and while the orchestra played lyrically under music director Edward Gardner, there seemed a lack of tension and pathos.

This was not helped by Des McAnuff’s new production — a joint venture with the Metropolitan Opera in New York — which had a phantom-of-the-opera feel to it. The necromancy was missing, though the lighting by Peter Mumford was wonderful and the greens and blues in the last scene were very effective. I also loved the choreography by Kelly Devine in Act II, and thought the first two Acts worked well, though the flash paper tricks were a bit naff, and the still projection of a face that suddenly blinked seemed unnecessarily contrived. Overall some lovely singing from Toby Spence and Melody Moore, but I left feeling underwhelmed.

This was the opening night of the new season, and things may catch fire later. Performances continue on September 21, 25, 30, and October 2, 6, 9, 14, 16.

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