Stagings of Boito s opera are rare in this country; the last one was in the 50s, so the fact that ENO is giving opera-goers a chance to see this ambitious, if broken-backed work is good news. Boito will always be remembered as the librettist of Verdi s Otello and Falstaff; the fact that he was a composer in his own right is generally overlooked. Unfortunately, I have to report that this opera is not the revelation I thought it would be.
Whilst I disagree with some critics who have utterly lambasted both the music and Ian Judge s new ENO production, it has to be said that the music rarely rises above the mundane and tedious. True, there are some moments of inspiration, but I honestly could not remember any of the music on leaving the theatre, which is a bad sign.
How then to approach this work? Well, I can understand why ENO wants to mount it as there are huge demands made of the chorus, and the chorus at ENO is excellent. They seize their many opportunities with gusto and seem to be having a whale of a time in Judges wonderfully glitzy, camp, wild and OTT staging which is allowed, on occasion, to become vulgar. Angels with rose-tinted spectacles, cherubs, demons, witches, Mephistopheles idly reclining in a stage box, bare-bottomed devils and the occasional overt reference to some bizarre S+M goings-on add to the tongue in cheek approach. There was, I thought, even the odd passing acknowledgement to David Alden s staging of Berlioz s take on the Faust story a few seasons ago. All done in the best possible taste? Well no, but it is all good fun.
ENO have assembled an excellent trio for the main roles. As Mephistopheles, Alastair Miles again confirms that he is one of the best of the younger generation of British basses at work on the stage - he makes the words tell and relishes the antics he undertakes. David Rendall has never sounded more thrilling, in the role of Faust, and he sings with piercing brilliance and quite shattering high notes. Susan Peterson, such a memorable Rusalka earlier in the season, sings the roles of Marguerite and Helen of Troy with a big fruity sound, quite apt for the proceedings. Oliver von Dohnanyi conducts with too much relish which results in some long wordless patches of choral singing. Obit bit off more than he could chew by trying to combine both parts of Goethe s Faust into one opera (he cut a lot of the music following the work s six hour premiere at La Scale - phew!), but the sincerity of his undertaking makes the occasional staging seem worthwhile. Go and see it as, statistically, the next staging in the UK isn t likely to be until about 2040!