Archive for September 26th, 2010

Review – Faust – English National Opera

September 26, 2010

I was introduced to the story of Dr. Faustus by Punchdrunk some three or so years ago, and found the idea of a man bargaining away his soul in exchange for youth and love quite attractive. Thus, when English National Opera started advertising its production of the Gounod opera, I was a fairly soft sell. The circusy graphics helped, and then there was the further momentum of the upcoming Young Vic production to boot. To top it off, seats could be found (for early performances at least) at very good prices. I actually organized a group of three to go, and wound up with sweet dress circle seats. Rock me, Charles Gounod!

My overall experience of this show was, unfortunately, reminders of things I don’t like: 19th century opera and ENO’s heavy-handed production style. To be honest, I wasn’t actually turned off by the sappy emotions of this opera (as I am for La Boheme and La Traviata); I found Margarita’s enduring love for Faust sweet, and her ability both to be seduced by the glitter of wealth and then swept away by passion (at the expense of honor) left her a far more rich character at the end than she was at the beginning. But I found the opera too, too long, with its five acts crammed into … well, spread across three and a half hours (and to think they cut out most of the ballet!). I also didn’t really care for the music, although (detecting a theme here?) I enjoyed Margarita’s big solos rather a lot – I’m not sure if it was just Melody Moore’s pleasant singing or not, but I found Faust’s (Toby Spence) and Mephistopheles’ (Iain Paterson) music forgettable (and I had no qualm about their voices).

However, once again I hated the production. ENO seems to consistently either hire directors with no faith in the audience, or to instruct said directors to MAKE IT OBVIOUS. So at the beginning we get a face appearing in the clouds (in a projected animation appearing through actual fog) … but rather than having it be just in the corner of our eyes, Des McAnuff has the clouds clear away then LEAVES THE FACE THERE for ages. Then he does it again and again. FAUST IS OBSESSED WITH THIS WOMAN OKAY I GET IT. Similarly, we see a laboratory setting at the beginning that seems to be related to the development of the atomic bomb – but later we have LITTLE BOY AND FAT MAN HANGING FROM THE RAFTERS. Oh, wow, I would have MISSED THE POINT otherwise. And, really, all of this nuclear memorabilia pissed me off, because there was NO WAY Faust could have been in some 1860s war milieu (which was when the scenes with the soldiers & Margarita appeared to be set) and then lived all the way to the Second World War. It just didn’t make sense – we flipped back from modern people in lab coats to a quasi-Victorian era town (with a moral code that was positively medieval) in an utterly incoherent fashion. Gah.

In short, I am sure now that I will never again see this opera, unless it can be cut by at least a full act. I personally vote for all the scenes with the army going – and, frankly, I’m perfectly willing to get rid of Margarita’s brother, too, as I don’t think he added all that much to the story – she would have despaired to death just with the horrible townspeople egging her on. However, I’m not giving up on Dr. Faustus – I’m going to go back to the Young Vic next month and try again. This is a great story and I’m not going to let some heavy-handed opera company wreck it for me.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 21st, 2010. Faust continues at ENO until Saturday, October 16th.)