Poor devil

Classical by<strong> Dermot Clinch</strong>

There has long been a rumour in the musical world that the greatest librettist Verdi ever had, Arrigo Boito, was also something of a composer. A new production of Boito's Mephistopheles at the English National Opera - the first in this country for over 40 years - provides an opportunity to conclude that he was, in fact, not. Which is sad, since the opera runs until 29 April.

Boito was a writer who liked long elaborate words and shocking people. He was the Will Self of Risorgimento Italy. He modelled himself on Baudelaire, was a leading member of a group of wicked young chaps who called themselves the Dishevelled Ones, and he went on to write the librettos for Verdi's Otello and Falstaff. This was only possible when relations with Verdi had survived a bad patch after Boito had swiped out at the "cretinous old fogies who were befouling Italian music like the walls of a brothel" and the old, if not fogeyish, Verdi couldn't think who he could be referring to except himself.

A line in Boito's libretto for Mephistopheles describing the heroine's celestial blue eyes gaping cadavericamente - cadaverishly - made an Italian friend of mine laugh convulsively when I tested it on her. She confirmed it was both overblown and typical. Childishly, the line "Stupor! Stupor!" given by Boito to Faust on seeing the ghost of his beloved with her head chopped off had a similar effect on me. The ENO is to be congratulated on its sensible new translation of the libretto by Carlos Wagner. "Stupor! Stupor!" is translated as "My God! Look there!"

At least the director, Ian Judge, doesn't take the opera too seriously. During a parody of 18th-century dance music and accompanying choreography, Mephistopheles takes out a football magazine and tells the audience that what's happening on stage isn't his kind of thing at all. Neither, of course, is it ours, though there was one row in the stalls who laughed very loudly. They laughed loudest when the nuns whose habits had fallen off to reveal they were really little horny devils found that the church bell ropes they were pulling lifted them right off the ground, and so revealed their underwear. This production is a curious tribute, if tribute it be, to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, born 250 years ago, on whose drama, Faust, the opera is based.

Boito's version of Faust is a fairly complex one of Goethe's very complex one. The ENO direction boils it all down to a story of virginal white v Ann Summers red with some sharpish jokes thrown in, and some hopelessly blunt ones. The tinny haloes and silver-foil wings made delightfully kitsch Jeff Koons objets of the heavenly host, while their rose-tinted spectacles were a nice comment on the world-view of angels. The mini-devils who accompany Mephistopheles through every scene, with their baboonish genitals and lipstick-red bottoms, became, on the other hand, a pain in the arse in no time.

The orchestra under Oliver von Dohnanyi is emphatic; David Rendall's Faust is no subtle doctor but a solid, professional tenor; Alastair Miles's Mephistopheles has a costume tail that proves suggestive for the naughty bits, but is a problematic devil since he can't quite sing the low notes, and his marvellous words about being the spirit of perpetual denial and the shadow concealing the enlightenment for which Faust yearns are lost. The chorus - whether conducted in the dark reaches at the top of the Coliseum with a little magic stick with a light on the end of it or, more conventionally, onstage - are heroic.

But why? A clutch of half-decent arias, a handful of interesting harp thrums, a smattering of witchy scratches, and the odd orgiastic, sub-Lisztian pile-up of chords: no great justification here. The run of duff melodies, slush of undeveloped harmonies, tour de force of over-pictorial images, are surely a strong argument for steering clear. "A semi-musical gift that rarely rises above the mediocre and generally dips a point or two below it," wrote Ernest Newman of Boito a long time ago. Nothing, honestly, has changed.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong