#4 “Faust – Fragile”: and Mephistopheles as Car Salesman

Ruth’s Opera Blog for A Faustian Pack of three operas at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden is part of  Criticism Now, a Cultural Institute project at Kings College London

The two new Faustian operas are being put together a long way from the Grand Guignol of Covent Garden.
Rehearsals are in the Jerwood Studios, Union Street, Southwark. I make my way there from the tube. Wire netting in an empty lot where I’m sure an architectural salvage yard once stood - it must have been knocked down -  rusts around random cars: some are shiny and finny,  others have the bloom of paint on metal that will never be renewed. Life is coming in, life is going out: this neighbourhood is changing fast.
Outside the Studios are bikes and a lorry unloading.
Inside, there’s a café, a conservatory, a stone fountain and rehearsal rooms. Bright and clear, with beautiful floors. Silvery sunlight throws window-shadows on a white wall.


Today is the first moment of coming together: the singers meet composers, directors, lighting director, stage manager and deputies, conductors, producers the lot. I marvel at the diverse talent around me in the room and greet Claire Shovelton, Manager of the Chroma Orchestra which will play for Through His Teeth. I’ve met her before, at a friend’s launch.
I meet the two repetiteurs: the pianists cum assistant conductors. The designer, Becs Andrews, a young prize-winning designer, has somehow designed a set which will work for both utterly different operas, and is going to show everyone the model.

  A large cardboard box has just arrived marked FAUST.  FRAGILE. I gaze at Becs with awe. When I was eight I had one of those toy Pollocks Theatres. I adored it, but it was fiddly, the stage sets fell about, I was clumsy and impatient and never got it going properly. But I’ve always loved the magic box of a little theatre. An altar, a vanishing point where what happens between people is always important. The shaped empty space where miracles happen.
I was once interviewed for a column called My Other Life, in which writers say what they would have loved to do if they hadn’t gone in for this strange addictive thing called writing.
What I’ve always wanted to be is a theatre – and ideally an opera – director. I’m fascinated by how the direction works with the design. How do they get just that colour to work with just that gesture at that key moment of interchange between two people: to bring out some peak or pivot of relationship – and, in opera, of music? Here’s my chance to find out.
Becs, I imagine, couldn’t be clumsy or impatient if she tried. She worked, she tells me, over Christmas and New Year without a break and has produced a set which can be used, with a few changes, for these two very different pieces which she must have thought about for months.
This morning she is taking us through Luke Bedford’s exploration of Faust in his opera Through His Teeth with libretto by David Harrower.
Here, Mephistopheles is a conman who bewitches many different women – none of them knows about the others – into believing he works for MI5, is in danger of his life, and only they can  help him – by giving him incredible amounts of money. They borrow from their families, lose contact with everyone close to them, their lives are destroyed – and eventually the guy is caught and charged and they realize it was all lies.

     Luke’s opera begins after the court case, with a TV interviewer asking one of the victims for her story.
There is no supernatural element here: Luke and David are focussing on the Faustian power one human being can wield over another. Robert, the philandering defrauding psychopathic lover, may be evil but he’s human. That makes A, his victim, Faust.
Becs takes us through the scenes. She has designed brilliant perforated black sliding screens which shift the scenes quickly from one to the other. An image of A’s sliding consciousness, perhaps, or the slipperiness of Robert’s lies.
With precise fingers, never a wobble in sight, Becs shows how the set changes. The interview set-up slides away and the set morphs into the woman’s memory: and a car sale-room where she first met this man.
Mephistopheles, a car salesman?
Of course, I think. That’s what the devil offers: shiny new dreams. World-polluting vehicles for getting away getting to a new place fast.