Wednesday, 22 September 2010

FAUST at the ENO

Charles Gounod's operatic version of Goethe's FAUST is far from a faithful adaptation of that grand epic (Berlioz comes a bit closer). The Germans used to call it MARGUERITE to separate it from the original as it only focuses on one episode of Goethe's work. Not only is the focus on Marguerite -- the Gounod becomes a very Christian parable of damnation and salvation that ends with the heroine's entrance through the pearly gates after Faust has been dragged to hell. I remember the first production of FAUST I ever saw back in the 1950s with a vision of the gates of heaven opening as the chorus celebrates Marguerite's redemption (the production was by the now legendary Peter Brook). Frank Corsaro's famous prodction for the New York City Opera in the seventies had a more ironic ending -- a mad Marguerite going to her execution as the chorus sang. Corsaro was one of the first American exponents of director's opera in which a director's conception became paramount. In an age with few great divas and divos (most of whom would have cared less about a director's conception), conductors and directors are the stars.  It isn't that there aren't good singers about -- but there aren't the record companies to promote them as they promoted Callas, Tebaldi, Sutherland, Pavarotti and Domingo. So now we often watch exercises in directoral self indulgence. Most of the examples of director's opera I have seen in London recently have been infuriating (Christof Loy's totally undramatic, minimalist LULU at the Royal Opera, Katie Mitchell's IDOMENEO at the English National Opera, Rupert Goold's TURANDOT at the ENO). And the look of many recent productions is simply ugly and doesn't provide a visual counterpart to the lovely music we are hearing.
There are times, as with Anthony Minghella's MADAMA BUTTERFLY in which a director creates an original, but perfectly appropriate visual production that serves the music which is, after all, the most important thing.
The MET and the ENO have brought in stage director Des McAnuff to direct a new FAUST. The ENO bills McAnuff as the director of JERSEY BOYS, but he is more than that -- a veteran director who can do the classics as well as jukebox musicals. McAnuff's idea is that FAUST isn't about salvation or damnation, but about mortality. At the end of the garden scene, the devil looks at a giant image of death who has stalked onto the stage. If anything, that image should have been more present throughout the evening. The final image we have is not of Faust being dragged off to hell or Marguerite going through the pearly gates, but Faust dying on the floor of his laboratory as if all we have seen has been a dream, as if death must be the end and nothing follows (Marguerite climbs a staircase that looks like it is part of the laboratory). Now I may believe that death is the end, but that sure isn't what the heavenly chorus has just sung. But this chorus has been Faust's lab-coated assistants in the bomb making factory where he researches means of destruction. He dreams the entire opera and elements of the laboratory and its staff are always on stage. For the most part, this works. The set isn't pretty to look at, even though Gounod's music is always pretty (for some this is a derogatory word, but there's nothing wrong with pretty music). The lighting is constantly changing and extremely effective. For the most part, I liked the production, though I thought some ideas (Death) were undeveloped and details were more important than developing character. Maybe all this will be worked out better by the time this production gets to the MET next season.
FAUST is an opera of great tunes and the real issue is the music. I have never heard the opera so beautifully conducted (Edward Gardner) or played and the ENO chorus was wonderful, as always. Toby Spence is an ideal Faust. Of course, he looks the part and can act. More important, he has a beautiful voice that seems to be getting bigger without losing its distinctive timbre and he sings the music beautifully. Melody Moore is good as Marguerite. She's not much of an actress, but uses her sweet lyric voice well. Last night Iain Paterson had a chest infection so his low notes were sometimes barely there, but everything else was fine.  The supporting cast was consistently good. This is probably a far better cast than the current MET casting office has found for their mounting of this production next season (please, not the ubiquitous Marcello Giordani!). Being the ENO, the opera was sung in a clunky English translation. Is opera in English drawing folks in or keeping them away? I think the latter.
What was most shocking was the small audience. FAUST used to be extremely popular. The MET in the good old days could fill the house with non-famous singers in FAUST. Now it seems to be out of fashion and even a production by the director of JERSEY BOYS doesn't bring in an audience. People will flock to Andrew Lloyd Webber's pallid imitations of this kind of music but don't go to the real thing. I'll take FAUST over PHANTOM any day.
FAUST. Music by Charles Gounod. Conducted by Edward Gardner. Directed by Des McAnuff. Sets by Robert Brill. Costumes by Paul Tazewell. Lighting by Peter Mumford. With Toby Spence, Melody Moore, Iain Paterson and Benedict Nelson. English National Opera, September 21, 2010.    

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