Review: Toby Spence Stars in Des McAnuff’s Rousing Production of Gounod’s “Faust” – English National Opera, London; October 14, 2010

[Note from William: This is the third in the series of four reports I am posting on performances I attended in Great Britain and France in early October 2010.]

Des McAnuff is the Tony award winning director for 1985’s Broadway theatre production, “Big River”, as well as 1993’s “The Who’s Tommy”, also directed “Jersey Boys”, 2006’s winner of the Tony for best musical.

McAnuff has always had an interest in vocal performance and opera and was persuaded by San Diego Opera’s General Director Ian Campbell to direct that company’s first production of Berg’s “Wozzeck”, with sets by his colleague Robert Brill.

I was fortunate enough to have been present at the San Diego “Wozzeck” and to have written a rather extensive review of that production, which included my probably unique idea that parallels exist between Berg’s “Wozzeck” and Gounod’s “Faust”. (For my review of the former explaining my reasons for identifying the Faust/Wozzeck connection, see: Humanizing “Wozzeck”: Hawlata, McAnuff, Brill Create a San Diego Opera Masterpiece – April 17, 2007.)

With “Jersey Boys” a solid West End hit at London’s Prince Edward Theatre, McAnuff could turn his attentions again to creating and directing an operatic production. The Coliseum, English National Opera’s home at Leicester Square,  is just a few miles south of the Prince Edward along Charing Cross Road. The opera McAnuff chose to direct there, as his second foray into opera – turned out to be Gounod’s “Faust”!

[Below: Des McAnuff, in a resized image, based on a photograph by Darrin Klimek for Toronto Life.]

For the “Faust” project, Robert Brill was enlisted again to design new sets. Having just a few months before reviewed appreciatively the Dallas Opera’s world premiere of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” with Brill’s sets, I couldn’t resist a trip to London to see how the McAnuff/Brill team would mount the Gounod opera.

I have argued on this website (and in publications elsewhere) that the Gounod opera is a more substantive work than some of its critics will concede, and that there exist in it profound issues that are not addressed in Goethe’s “Faust Parts One and Two”, works that give only trivial attention to the woman and the family that Faust’s thoughtless actions destroyed.

McAnuff  had mounted the play  “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”, Marlowe’s 16th century version of the Faust story, which precedes Goethe’s version by two centuries.

As McAnuff considered the “Faust” story, he found himself affected by an account of the Polish scientist Jacob Bronowski (who is best known for creating the BBC television series The Ascent of Man). Having witnessed the destruction of Nagasaki by the atom bomb, Bronowski determined that he would never practice as a physicist again.

[Below: Physicist Jacob Bronowski, later creator of the television series “The Ascent of Man”; resized image from]

Bronowski’s account of the impact that seeing Nagasaki in ruins had on him personally, provided the inspiration for McAnuff’s conceptualization. McAnuff had moved the story of “Wozzeck” forward in time to the time of Berg’s service in World War I. His forward time-shift for “Faust” places the year of Old Faust’s despair (and Bronowski’s disillusionment) in 1945, the year of the atom bomb’s use as a weapon.

This time-shift had the theatrical advantage of having the “young Faust” contemporaneous with World War I. (This is the first production of “Faust” I have seen in which there is an attempt to tie old Faust and young Faust to specific historical periods,  an obviously intriguing idea.)

His colleague Robert Brill created a massive set, with multistory structures at audience left and right. each with a spiral staircase permitting the principals to ascend to the upper floors or to trot down the stairs to join the action on the main stage. As in the San Diego Opera “Wozzeck”, McAnuff makes use of projections of the characters – in particular a haunting image of Melody Moore’s Marguerite, that appears at first to be a still black and white photograph, but when she blinks from time to time, we recognize it as a continuous filming of her face.

Like his “Wozzeck” at the San Diego Opera (which presents most of its operas in their original language), McAnuff’s production of “Faust” at English National Opera is presented in English with supertitles. ENO is a bastion for opera in the vernacular, but for the past generation, with the widespread adoption of supertitles almost everywhere, vernacular performances are much more of a rarity.

Toby Spence, who is a fine lyric tenor, did a masterful job in the title role. He sings French opera roles in French at the New York Metropolitan Opera, which is the co-sponsor of the McAnuff production, and I would be pleased to hear him again singing Faust in either French or English. (Since I attend “Faust” performances quite regularly, I was surprised at how little it mattered to me in actual performance in which language it was sung. I hope my French friends will forgive me!)

Melody Moore is familiar to me in smaller roles at the San Francisco Opera, where she was an Adler Fellow. She had sung lead roles there in “second cast” performances, but this is the first time that I was able to see her in a major role, and she impressed me as a soprano from whom we will hear a lot more in coming years.

The role of Mephistopheles is one that a number of artists perform in North America. I suspect there could be quite a queue of world class basses and bass-baritones that would be willing to sing that part when the production crosses the Atlantic in future seasons, in whichever language  it is sung.

Notes on the Performance

During the overture, conducted by ENO Music Director Edward Gardner, the image of Faust (Toby Spence) is projected on a scrim. During old Faust’s expressions of concern about the course of his life, military images, most notably those of bombs, appear. We are in a scientific laboratory, peopled by women in laboratory coats, creating the weapons of war.

When Mephistopheles (Iain Paterson) is conjured, Faust, now interested in making love, not war, expresses his strong desire for the restoration of his youth. Disappearing momentarily, Faust returns in a white suit and Fedora, scrambling up a spiral staircase with Mephistopheles to observe the “inn” (McAnuff merging the idea of Auerbach’s tavern prominent in Goethe’s poem and Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust” with the church kermesse of Gounod’s opera).

[Below: Mephistopheles (Iain Paterson, top) has restored Faust (Toby Spence) to his youth; resized image, based on a Catherine Ashmore photograph, courtesy of the English National Opera.]

At once, the theatrical usefulness of the unit set becomes evident as the opera’s scenes can flow one into the next without lowering the curtain to allow a scenery change. This can be a treacherous endeavor if an opera’s disparate scenes fail to “work” together, creating what I have called a “puzzle box” set (see Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007), but McAnuff and Brill have created a staging formula by which the scenes can change swiftly and still retain the logic of the opera’s story line and its dramatic flow.

The soldiers and townspeople have assembled on the main stage floor and watch the boy Siebel (Anna Grevelius) chug-a-lug a beer. Soon Paterson’s Mephisto has descended the spiral staircase to disrupt the merriment. As he sings the Calf of Gold aria, the contents of a water cooler turns to red wine.

McAnuff, throughout the opera, makes it clear that images of a cross and other Christian iconography bedevil this devil, but that their effects, however immobilizing, are only temporary, and (except for Marguerite’s prayers for her own soul at the opera’s climax) are used too sparingly to diminish Mephisto’s powers very effectively. Soon he has the villagers in the Inn dancing to his beat.

[Below: Mephistopheles (Iain Paterson), using the magic powers within the walking stick he carries, directs the dancing at the inn; resized image, based on a Catherine Ashmore photograph, courtesy of the English National Opera.]

The Garden Scene quartet, in which Spence, Moore and Paterson are joined by the Martha Schwerlein of Pamela Helen Stephen), is amusingly done, with the enchantment of the Night of Love casting a spell on the audience as magical as that of Faust and Marguerite.

[Below: Faust (Toby Spence) and Marguerite (Melody Moore) succumb to the eroticism of the enchanted garden; edited image, based on a Catherine Ashmore photograph, courtesy of the English National Opera.]

The unit set production allows the flow directly to the pregnant Marguerite’s spinning song (in which she uses a pedal-driven sewing machine,  since a spinning wheel would have been an anachronism at the time of the First World War). Siebel’s second aria, in my experience more often than not performed in the 21st century, is cut here.

Then to the soldier’s chorus, which in most contemporary productions permits the production designer to display the sinister effects of wartime on the life and limbs of the community’s young men. As one would expect, it becomes a substantive opportunity for McAnuff to reinforce his “horrors of war” theme.

Valentin’s mortal wounding was an opportunity to appreciate the dramatic and vocal talents of baritone Benedict Nelson, and the devastating impact that Valentin’s curse has on his sister Marguerite.

[Below: Valentin (Benedict Nelson, center left on stretcher) renounces Marguerite (Melody Moore, center right) as Siebel (Anna Grevelius, kneels in front, far right) ]

I usually approve of the elimination of the Walpurgis Night scene, which was added by Gounod at a later date as the matrix for the ballet required of any work that was to be performed at the main Paris opera company.

However, the Walpurgisnacht does have some familiar and likeable music, and, absent the ballet (almost surely not written by Gounod anyway), does not detract from, and perhaps even bolsters, McAnuff’s swift-moving action.

The final trio was clearly sufficient to attract the attention of celestial hosts. McAnuff, like William Friedkin in his recent production of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” at the Los Angeles Opera (see Friedkin’s Miraculous, Radvanovsky’s Revelatory L.A. “Suor Angelica” – September 6, 2008), obviously has no problem with portraying Christian miracles onstage, gave the forgiven Marguerite her passage to heaven, while Mephistopheles took his prey down below.

Then, in a surprise final moment, we see the old Faust again, having consumed the poison he had at the opera’s beginning prepared for his suicide, falling dead, and we are left with the suggestion that the entire opera was the hallucinations of the disaffected scientist just before his death.

Faust and Wozzeck

The McAnuff production was, like his “Wozzeck” at San Diego Opera, a very satisfying presentation of a work that is not always done well. I had been struck by how McAnuff in the atmosphere of Brill’s massive, wooden structure, used the story of Wozzeck as a means of demonstrating, among the opera’s several themes, the dark side of medical experimentation. In “Faust”, he indicts the dark side of another science, physics, whom he finds complicit with the production of the tools of mass destruction.

I personally hope to see much more of McAnuff’s work in opera in the future.

In the meantime during 2011, it is my plan to attend another setting in which “Faust” and “Wozzeck” are produced side by side. The former opera opens the Santa Fe Opera 2011 Summer Festival in a new production which will be the first time that the New Mexico company has ever performed a Gounod opera. Later that summer a revival of their production of “Wozzeck” will join “Faust” in rotation.

For my previous discussions of “Faust”, see: The Devil’s Details Part II: Thoughts on Gounod’s “Faust”

and Faust November 3, 1955

and A “Faust” Surprise in Houston – January 23, 2007

and Lyric Opera Revives Inventive Corsaro-Perdziola “Faust”: Chicago November 3, 2009

and Racette Ravishing, Relyea Riveting in San Francisco “Faust” – June 5, 2010,

and A Second Look: A Visually, Aurally Praiseworthy “Faust” at San Francisco Opera – June 20, 2010.