"I believe in Science" screamed a placard in Trafalgar Square on English National Opera's opening night of the season.  The discarded slogan was a remnant of the protest to the papal visit earlier in the day but it could have been an advert for Des McAnuff's new production of Faust at the Coliseum. 

The curtain rose on the sight of the good doctor, surrounded by the trappings of a life of scientific exploration, embarking on a spiritual struggle to the death.  

As if to help us keep our aggressive secularism in check, McAnuff sets the first act in a nuclear installation, a reminder that science has also led us to the edge of total annihilation.  When Faust is propelled back to his youth, we find ourselves at the time of the First World War, that other arena of mechanised mass destruction.  

If the pope’s visit is a fortunate accident of timing for the production, giving it a fleeting topicality, the American director gives us only a thin veneer of concept and one is hardly left with an unequivocal feeling that we know what he’s getting at.  Everything is executed with swift efficiency, slick choreography straight from the musical theatre an indication that we tend to stick to what we know when the water gets deep.  

The nuclear imagery makes little impact and the chorus of prancing post-explosion victims who haunt the final scenes are more comical zombie than anything more meaningful.  

On the surface McAnuff does nothing particularly wrong but the problem with the evening is that this potentially most exciting of operas is rendered dull, and duller as things progress.  There are no insights and no searingly memorable images such as the battered, bleeding procession of soldiers returning from the war that ironically accompanied Gounod’s “triumphant” chorus in Ian Judge’s previous ENO production.  

The three principals – Toby Spence’s Faust (his first), Ian Paterson’s Mephistopheles and Melody Moore as the abused Marguerite – all do good work (Spence in particular) but a characterlessness in the portrayals reflects that of the whole production.   

Paterson, a fine home-grown singer and one of whom, like Toby Spence, we should be proud, is a suave devil (as suave as one can be with a pony-tail) but the role lies slightly too low for him and weight and depth is lacking.  The odd conjuring trick such as flames shooting from his fingers is too little too soon to add any real pizzazz.  

If what’s going on onstage lacks charm, Edward Gardner draws some fine playing from the ENO Orchestra but even then the composer’s characteristic tunefulness doesn’t always find its mark.  Episodes that can thrill pass by unnoticed although the stirring ending, with Marguerite’s spirit triumphing leaves us with a modicum of uplift.  

ENO has another Faust offer this season, with The Damnation of Faust next May.  Let’s hope that Terry Gilliam, that most imaginative of directors, can inject a greater degree of insight and excitement into Berlioz’ take on the legend than this early offering does.  

- Simon Thomas