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.