Our regular readers will know that I am compiling a gradually expanding little list of Great Operatic Mysteries (for the curious the last one was why on earth Royal Opera decided to stage The Gambler?). The English National Opera season opener provides a new one: how on earth has Gounod's Faust managed to remain in the repertory?
Let us start with the positives. The production itself, by Des McAnuff (whose main claim to fame is directing Jersey Boys) is inoffensive. I don't think that translating the story to the eve of the nuclear age adds much to the piece, but this is not a show where one spends one's time in a state of bafflement or fury at each new piece of staging. Actually, to some degree, the whole concept of World War One to World War Two seems a little flat and half baked. The set and costumes are much of the time so non-descript that if I hadn't read the programme note I would have been hard put to know that the setting had been updated. Where the updating is most obvious there are some effective aspects (the lab setting for Faust at the beginning and the end) and some totally ineffective aspects (the atom bomb test that the demons of hell seem to be witnessing at the top of the Fifth Act). McAnuff conjures up the odd striking stage picture, (e.g. Marguerite's appeal to God in Act Four) but otherwise offers regrettably little distraction from the music.
Turning to the musical performances things are rather more uneven. Toby Spence performs heroics in the title role. I didn't feel the range was quite right for him, and in the lower register he often disappeared beneath the orchestra, but he produced some fabulous ringing top notes and an effective characterisation of Faust both before and after his transformation. Iain Paterson (Mephistopheles) is beginning to worry me a little. I am informed that he was ill earlier in the week and maybe this accounts for it, but something of the command and power I recall from earlier performances was also not quite there when I saw him in Elektra in January. It's not that there's anything wrong with his performance here, per se, but it doesn't completely catch fire. As for Melody Moore as Marguerite, one could live with the dramatic problem that it is rather hard to see why her beauty beguiles Faust, if vocally she was up to the part, but she isn't. She was particularly laboured in the famous Jewel Song which I assume ought to bring the house down, elsewhere she was serviceable. Of the supporting cast, there was a nicely characterised Siebel from Anna Grevelius.
Turning to the ensemble, the ENO Chorus badly need to improve their act. They got out of time with Edward Gardner on a couple of occasions, on others they sounded thin voiced and insecure, and their collective diction is lamentable. Their delivery of some of the climactic choruses was fine but a sharper performance across the board is needed. The orchestral playing was also serviceable as was Gardner's management of the whole. I wondered from time to time if a little more fire might have helped, but I think the fundamental problem is with the score.
For the fact is that this is a desperately dull opera. As I stated at the outset it is a Great Operatic Mystery to me how this piece retains a place in opera. The music all sounds pretty samey, it doesn't really do much to add emphasis to the subject matter. Yes there are some stirring choruses, and things build up nicely in the last few minutes, but it really is too little too late. Most intriguingly, I found for the first time, that the fact that it was being sung in English was causing me serious problems. I recall one critic complaining that opera in English (I think whoever it was was particularly referring to Italian opera) suffers from sounding like Gilbert and Sullivan. I have never had this difficulty until tonight. The libretto of Faust (by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre apparently) is frankly extremely silly for much of the time and read like Gilbert on a bad day. The trouble is that Sullivan could write a good tune. Gounod is regrettably bad at this (in fact I nearly thought of calling this review “trying to find the big tune in Gounod's Faust...I found three little ones” to borrow from Kit and the Widow).
ENO are trumpeting this season as their most ambitious for some years, and I am considering trying to see the lot. This is not a bad start: for once the production doesn't annoy, and there are some strong musical aspects, but one can't help feeling there are so many other works more deserving of new stagings.