For a long period, Charles Gounod's Faust was one of the most frequently performed operas, its popularity due to a lusciously romantic score which contains a series of showstopping set-piece arias, many of which have found their way into popular culture (to give just one example, the Jewel Song in Act III has a starring role in the Tintin story The Castafiore Emerald).

Iain Paterson as Mephistopheles watches over Toby Spence as Faust: Catherine Ashmore, ENO
Iain Paterson as Mephistopheles watches over Toby Spence as Faust: Catherine Ashmore, ENO

At the ENO last night, conductor Edward Gardner did the score full justice, bringing out every tug at a romantic heartstring. It's the third time I've seen Gardner at the ENO this year, and he has been very strong every time. Some, if not all, of the singing was excellent: the show was held together by Iain Paterson's Mephistopheles, sardonic and suitably demonic throughout (his Dance of the Golden Calf was the highlight of the evening) and Toby Spence was melodious and romantic as Faust, if occasionally lacking in firepower. Amongst the smaller parts, Anna Grevelius impressed in the trouser role of Siebel. I was less than convinced by Melody Moore's Marguerite: for my ears, there was too much vibrato and not enough passion.

I'm afraid to say that I loathed Des McAnuff's production. It gave across the strong message that the director didn't like the opera the way it was written and felt the need to distract us from it by adding lots of visual material that we could watch in its place. So there was one visual subplot about scientists in a nuclear weapons laboratory (life-size models of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs accompanied by vast numbers of men and women in white coats) and another about soldiers in the World War I trenches (gas masks, military stretchers, adrenalin injections and shell-shock). There was awful over-use of video projection: we were expected to spend lots of time watching giant not-quite-still faces of Faust and Marguerite (whose name was inexplicably turned by the surtitles into a cocktail 'Margarita').

The main problem with all this is that it distracted attention from the main story to the point of abandoning it completely. Barbier and Carré's libretto (as well as Goethe's poem on which it is based) concentrates neither on Faust's quest for knowledge nor on the minor military subplot: rather, it's a traditionally Christian story of temptation, sin, repentance and redemption. The soul of the opera is a Christian one, and you didn't have to be either Christian or religious to realise that in McAnuff's staging, that soul was altogether lost.

If you're happy just to listen to Gounod's music played beautifully, this production will suit you well enough. But if you want a drama about a scientist seeking eternal youth and the impact of finding it, go and see the ENO's production of The Makropulos Case (see yesterday's review) - it's an altogether more rewarding experience.