As Gounod’s Faust arrives on the Royal Opera House’s main stage, the Linbury Studio Theatre hosts two world premières inspired by the classic tale. The first of these is Through His Teeth, a new work created in a collaboration between composer Luke Bedford and playwright David Harrower.
In Bedford and Harrower’s take on the Faust story, our heroine – ‘A’ – doesn’t quite sell her soul, but sacrifices her family, her freedom, and almost her entire sense of self as she is seduced into a web of deceit by that twenty-first century equivalent of the devil – a conman. The result is an enjoyable and interesting piece, but one that could do with delving more deeply into its own subject matter.
The plot development feels a little rushed, as the action rapidly progresses from first meeting, to full-blown relationship, to being on the run from enemies of MI5. This is in part down to the structure of the work, which highlights vignettes and snippets of the relationship to pinpoint certain conversations and emotions and is itself not a bad form to adopt. Yet the wild entanglement of duplicity and enticement deserves more time to reflect upon and understand: what makes an apparently rational, intelligent woman believe so easily that this car salesman is really an MI5 agent? Put like that, it sounds ridiculous – yet it is based on true events and almost leads to her destruction. Giving this closer attention would more deftly and powerfully highlight the Faustian inspiration.
Having said that, there’s plenty to praise here. Indeed, vocally there is very little to fault: Anna Devin’s soprano soars, and she has a keen sense of when to linger, and when to really go for it. As the enigmatic Robert, Owen Gilhooly has a solid grasp on his character’s rapidly-shifting moods and reflects them adeptly in his strong performance, while the trio is confidently completed by Victoria Simmonds. The only niggle is occasionally diction, as at several times throughout the hour I was glad of the surtitles – something I shouldn’t have to say for an opera in English. The vibrant accompaniment of contemporary chamber orchestra CHROMA is a key element of the success in this production, fulfilling the intensity and the surprising lightnesses of the score and pushing the cast on to greater emotional heights.
The risk of any clunkiness in the modern libretto is, to Bedford’s great credit, turned around for comic effect as the clichéd patter and flirtatious banter of car salesman Robert raises laughs in this operatic context. The frank discussion of the central couple’s sex life is a little uncomfortable in its abruptness, and perhaps over-simplifies the ‘seduction’ element of this deceit, yet it does allow for some chilling power games. Particularly effective are the argument scenes between Devin and Simmonds, as the layering of the two parts builds climactically, as A’s life spirals out of control and away from her family. CCTV screens of previous scenes, current scenes and apparent news reports act as a chilling backdrop to the flashback documentary-style work.
It would have been tempting to wrap up this hour-long piece as a neat moral package, with everyone having learned their lesson and, in the Faustian sense, with the devil conquered. The decision to in fact end on an unanswered question gives greater strength to the whole trajectory of the work: has this experience really changed ‘A’? Would she go through it all again? And more to the point, will she – will the ‘devil’ yet triumph?
Overall, this is a slick and entertaining new work that deserves more fleshing out and less haste if it is going to achieve all its aims.
Through His Teeth is playing at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre until 11 April. For tickets and more information, visit the Royal Opera House website.