Recap: Faust as Troubled Atomic Scientist at English National Opera

Classic Arts Features   Recap: Faust as Troubled Atomic Scientist at English National Opera
Frank Cadenhead reports from English National Opera's season opener Sept. 18, a staging that takes a fresh look at Gounod's Faust.


Award-winning stage director Des McAnuff updates the action to between the world wars in Europe. With a low-key season opening over at the Royal Opera, this production is one that will likely animate London's operatic chattering classes.

To enlist the services of theater giant Des McAnuff is a major score for the ENO. His 2004 production of Jersey Boys has won every award in sight and is still running in London. His hit The Who's Tommy (with Pete Townshend) did the same in the 1990s. He was Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego for two decades and garnered international recognition and over 200 awards under his leadership. He is now Artistic Director of Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He made his opera debut with a production of Berg's Wozzeck at the San Diego Opera in 2007. His early involvement with the legend of Faust dates from 1976 when he staged Christopher Marlowe's work on the subject, the "Tragical History of Dr. Faust" in Toronto.

McAnuff was struck by science guru Jacob Bronowski's disillusionment with physics after seeing the results of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki. The action on stage has a factory setting and the chorus is often in scientist's smocks and toting clipboards. Different model versions of the original atomic bombs descend from the ceiling briefly during the first act. How well this concept works to illuminate the music is much of the magic of the evening and breaths new life to this tale.

The winning young tenor Toby Spence makes he debut in the title role with major impact. While some might want a bit more honey in the voice, his intelligent musicianship and sheer natural talent made him a clear audience favorite. Soprano Melody Moore was the affecting object of his love, Marguerite, and sang with feeling. The vocally under-powered Mephistopheles, bass baritone Iain Paterson, was still dapperly demonic with his white suit and magic cane. The rest of the cast and chorus were at a high level, particularly the work of Benedict Nelson as Valentin and Anna Grevelius as Siebel. The translation of the opera into English, de rigueur at the ENO, takes some time to get used to for those not accustomed to it. Some lumpy translations threw the chorus in the first act but otherwise the words were easily understood.

The work is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and is likely be on the program there next season. The Met's boss, Peter Gelb, nine days before his own company's opening, was in the audience and seen to be smiling. He could also hear first hand the fine work of young Edward Gardner, ENO's music director, who has been widely credited as being part of the company's revitalization in the last few years. Gardner will make his debut at the Met next month conducting Bizet's "Carmen."

The real victor this night was a staging which obviously treasured the story of love and divine redemption and retold it with a innovative vigor and grace. The dusted-off libretto even very nearly makes sense - no small accomplishment in itself. The opera has nine performances and is the first of an amazing ten new productions this season at ENO.

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