What does the Faust legend mean to us today? At a time when everybody from a politician to a banker seems ready to sell his soul to the devil, there is a good reason to consider the tale afresh and the Royal Opera has commissioned two new works to stand alongside its revival of Gounod’s ever-popular Faust, which opened on Friday.
Both the new pieces are on a small scale. Through His Teeth – music by Luke Bedford, libretto by David Harrower – lasts just 55 minutes, employs three singers and a handful of musicians (though that may not be obvious from the wealth of sounds Bedford draws from them), and has a story as slimline as Gounod’s grand opera feels bloated.
What we get here is a slice of real life, like an item on the evening news – indeed, the first thing we see is a woman being interviewed on television about a recent court case. It seems she is one of a number of women who have fallen prey to a conman and we gradually learn that he has seduced and imprisoned his victims, probably with violence, on the pretence that he is from MI5 and is protecting them from unspeakable horrors outside.
Bedford’s chamber opera has its antecedents, though it is not obvious that Faust is one of them. The man seems more like Don Giovanni with his difficult-to-define sexual charisma, and the opera that constantly lurks in the background is Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, as an innocent woman is drawn ever deeper into psychological torment by some shadowy, manipulative force. There might seem to be a mismatch between Harrower’s words (mundane, lots of swearing) and Bedford’s score (subtle, spare, elusive). But the music draws otherworldly sounds out of its small band of harp, accordion, percussion and others, and adds the extra layer of mystery that sets the imagination spinning.
Anna Devin sings with compelling beauty as the woman known only as A and is well supported by Owen Gilhooly as the man, and Victoria Simmonds as TV interviewer and sister. Sian Edwards conducts the ensemble Chroma with flair and Bijan Sheibani directs unfussily. The opera’s ending, with the woman seemingly still in the man’s thrall, is a good deal more unsettling than anything Gounod managed.