Long, long ago (well, 2004), I had never read an opera blogpost, let alone written one. I was unaware of the burgeoning online communities of opera fans, and if I had been, wouldn’t have been interested. The only reviews I read were of performances that friends were involved in, and for that matter, the only times I attended were when it was somebody else’s idea. This is not to say that I disliked opera: on the contrary, I generally enjoyed the performances very much while remaining happily ignorant of any finer details of the art form. I owned recordings and scores of only Carmen, Tosca and The Ring, and felt that was quite enough to be going on with. Anyway, there were a few performances I attended during the mid-noughties which stand out as successive tipping points in turning me from an orchestra geek who didn’t mind if some singers were joining in with the music while acting out some daft story, to an opera fan; David McVicar’s brilliantly witty and visually stunning Faust at the ROH was one of these few. Thus the work – and by association, that particular production – is assured a special place in my heart. Bryn Terfel’s turn as Mephisto alone would probably have convinced me, even without Alagna, Gheorghiu, the luxury casting of Keenlyside as Valentin, and probably the funniest ballet I’ve ever seen. I really wish I’d reviewed it in detail, but of course, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do any such thing, any more than it would have occurred to me (while accompanying my companion in her stage-door-stalking of Mr Alagna) to yell “Oy Bryn, nice dress!” at Mr Terfel. Alors, you perhaps see my difficulty in assuring I am making a properly fair assessment of Des McAnuff’s new Faust at the ENO.
As the first gentle strains of music began (and an elderly gentleman behind me picked his moment to begin unwrapping what was clearly the most thoroughly-wrapped boiled sweet in the world), a huge video image of Toby Spence’s disembodied head was projected onto the scrim, and I nearly giggled because it reminded me of Old Star Trek, when they often had big alien heads appear on the screen in similar manner, to bellow threateningly at the brave crew. Later on, Melody Moore’s huge disembodied head was projected in the same manner, but this was even better, because there was the sci-fi set to go with it. Yes, no stuffy old alchemist’s den for Dr Faust, for this was more Dr Atomic in a chrome and white 20th century lab with beakers of chemicals and model bombs and people in white coats and stuff. I have said before, I rather like productions set in unexpected time periods – the Flying Dutchman on a spaceship, Macbeth with machine guns, Emperor Nero snorting coke or Sherlock Holmes with an InterPol smartphone app, etc. I’m not so good with combinations of different periods, though, such as here, some chorus as mid-20th century scientists, some as 1st World War soldiers, and some as 19th century Arcadian milkmaids. To be fair, the concept behind this became sort-of clear later — it turns out that rather than just physically de-ageing, Faust travels back to the time when he was young (or does he – aha!), which the rest of his lab get to watch through the Satanic time portal. Either that or there was a burglary in the ENO store cupboard and they had to borrow all the women’s costumes from D’Oyly Carte. (I could insert an unnecessarily rude comment here about also borrowing some of the chorus direction from G&S — such as the massed marching-on-the-spot during one number — but that wouldn’t be At All Nice.)
Having already sold his soul once this year as Tom Rakewell, Toby Spence was at it again. Although not exactly convincing as Old Faust, once morphed into handsome, dapper seducer Young Faust, he was excellent throughout. Although I’ve always enjoyed his singing in the past, I was delighted to hear how large and strong his voice was sounding, without losing any of its pleasant tone, and he certainly hit some belting top notes, which I am reliably informed include at least one Famous High C. Iain Paterson also had a fine, strong, upper register, and middle too, but unfortunately — in my personal and skewed opinion, of course — if you’re singing the Devil, it’s the low notes that count the most. *Juvenile humour warning* I like my bass(-bariton)es with big, rounded, dark-toned bottoms, and Paterson’s bottom was a bit thin and pale. Nevertheless, Vous qui faites l’endormie (or whatever it’s called in English) was particularly enjoyable. Melody Moore’s Margarita [sic] was mostly decent, but a lot of her arias had extensive flute and oboe in the accompaniment, and I kept finding my attention focusing on the pit rather than the stage. Discussing the performance afterwards, everybody seemed to like Benedict Nelson’s Valentin, but it didn’t quite do it for me. Avant de quitter ces lieux is an absolutely gorgeous aria, and it’s unlike me not to be moved by it, but there you go. Nobody plays cute androgynous youths like Anna Grevelius, and her charming, clear-toned elegance made me wish Siebel had a bit more to sing. The chorus had a couple of ropey moments regarding precision of timing, but produced a lovely warm, resonant sound in the hymn-like bits. The orchestral playing, while not quite setting me on fire, was of a consistently high standard, with highlights being the flute and piccolo (yeah, big surprise there), the cor anglais, and the cello and double bass sections.
I hope it is clear that this was, overall, a very enjoyable performance — although perhaps the enjoyment was not always of the form intended. Walpurgisnacht, for example, supposedly a mind-blowing orgy with the most beautiful women (and the best drugs) in history, resembled dishing-up time at the soup kitchen. Marguerite ascending the Stairway to Heaven and the 3-metre tall Grim-Reaper-on-wheels were also nice touches. I should like to end on a question which occurred to me during Act 4 (and allegedly occurred to Hector Berlioz on the opening night) – namely, how is it that Mephisto falls over wriggling like a bug under a magnifying glass when someone waves a little medallion and a couple of crossed swords at him near the start, but later wanders around a church, in fact singing a song under a huge neon cross, quite happily? Answers on a postcard, please.