From the overtures dramatic, descending opening chord Gounod’s Faust has us gripped. Sounds of foreboding, longing and regret drift out above the audiences heads as a mans aged face looms out from the darkness, projected onto a translucent screen. Behind this ghostly visage, there is a scene which succinctly blends the productions two central visual themes: grotesque, withered, zombie-like minions of Hell trudge agonisingly across a modern-looking laboratory set, ruffling the dust-sheets which have been placed over the sterile tables.
Des McAnuff’s new production explores the tension between the well-worn Gothic trappings of Hell, Satan and eternal damnation and a much more modern spectre, one which perhaps chills the bones of a 21st century audience with greater urgency: the nuclear bomb and the cold efficiency of science. Here Faust’s laboratory is staffed by brisk, automaton-like scientists in white coats, complex mathematical formulae on the blackboard and the bombs which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki dangling above their heads, like the mythic Sword of Damocles.
The ancient, arthritic Faust himself (Toby Spence) longs for death and is haunted by the image of a young beauty, Marguerite (Melody Moore) who appears to him mystically in a billowing cloud of vapour. He is dissuaded from drinking a fatal chemical potion by the sudden appearance of Mephistopheles (Iain Paterson) a sinister dandy in a white linen suit who offers the broken and withered Faust the youth he so sorely longs to regain. The scenes between Faust and The Devil are the crucial element in any telling of the tale, and it is a very satisfying partnership here.
After an elegant quick-change transformation from old man to impetuous youth, Spence embodies Faust’s reckless impatience and longing for love flawlessly, his impressive vocal range scaling the heights of passion or despair with piercing clarity, then tumbling to the depths of quiet reflection or near-whispered oaths of love with touching emotional resonance. Paterson’s Devil is sly, manipulative, witheringly self-assured and roguishly loveable all at once. Our attention falls on him every time he takes the stage, even if it is just to look down from the spiral staircase at the side of the set upon the little human dramas which he directs with a flourish of his cane, his stentorian tones as commanding as his steely gaze, or as sardonically comic as his sideways glances to the audience.
The performances are powerfully conveyed across the whole cast. Moores Marguerite goes from coquettish young girl delighting in Faust’s gift of jewellery, trilling with joy at her own reflection, to the desolate, damned woman who suffers the direst of consequences for her youthful indiscretions. Faust’s rival suitor, the boyish Siebel, is given fine, sprightly voice by Anna Grevelius, while Benedict Nelson is sonorous and square-jawed as Marguerites doomed war-hero brother Valentin.
The courtship of Pamela Helen Stephens’ Marthe and Satan is beautifully played off against Faust and Marguerite’s somewhat po-faced love duet, Stephens and Paterson almost as compelling a duo as Paterson and Spence. It in these scenes where some of the most compelling singing is heard as the four voices intertwine and crosstalk over one another fluidly and movingly, each characters motivation still clearly perceptible in the sublime vocal melange.
The production is at its most dazzling in the larger set-pieces, exemplified by Act II’s gathering of soldiers at an inn on their way to war. As they drink and carouse with a bevy of colourfully-dressed young ladies, confident in their own forthcoming victory, the party is invaded by Satan, and he choreographs a ghoulish, jerky ballet from the gathered revellers. The raucous, cocksure mood in this sequence is poignantly contrasted later in Act IV, as the same men return from the battlefield weary, wounded and haunted, the photographer’s flash gun causing one of their shell-shocked number to react in panic, even as the swelling Soldiers’ Chorus sounds an ironically triumphant note.
The set design by Robert Brill is striking in its deceptive simplicity, with props wheeling in and out on hidden runners, the backdrop splitting and collapsing mechanically as the action requires. Marguerites house, a looming Play School silhouette, is made to look both as inviting as a children’s book illustration and as sinister as a Fritz Lang composition. Paul Tazewell’s costumes take their cue from McAnuff’s non-specific, early 20th century vision, with the soldiers uniforms coming straight from The Great War , their women clad first in colourful party frocks as they send their men off to fight, later in coats and hats of utilitarian grey as the mood of the opera darkens with the palette. Dustin O’Deill’s video backdrops add another layer of visual sophistication, the passage of time conveyed by whipping storm clouds, the blossoming love between Faust and Marguerite filling the sky with dozens of red roses. In the operas starkest, bleakest scene Marguerite stands crop-haired and alone in front of a towering projection of her own face, impassive but for the digital tears pouring down her face.
These modernist elements would of course be mere window-dressing without the timelessly touching music, and Edward Gardner’s orchestra is as richly expressive and moving as the score deserves. Sometimes, it has to be said, a little too expressive, as a crescendo or two all but drown out the voices of the principals on a key word. This is, it must be said, a minor quibble, since everyone is in astonishing voice, particularly the chorus, who raise goosebumps during Marguerites final ascent of the scaffold into Heaven. A powerful addition to this operas diverse history, the striking novelty of the vision never blotting out the simple power of Gounod’s music, breathing life and humanity into the stark sets and chilling visions of Hell, both man-made and Satanic.