sat 16/12/2017

Faust, Opera North | reviews, news & interviews

Faust, Opera North

Faust, Opera North

Classy vocal performances battle it out with spectacular visuals

Juanita Lascarro and Peter Auty in Opera North's dayglo 'Faust'Tristram Kenyon

You leave Opera North’s new Faust buzzing and bleary-eyed. The production sounds glorious, with terrific singing. It’s also blessed and cursed with a visually astonishing staging which thrills only slightly more than it infuriates. This company’s cheeky Carmen update annoyed many in 2011, and their take on "the second most popular French opera" will leave some spectators perplexed.

Ran Arthur Braun and Rob Kearley’s updating is broadly contemporary but full of anachronistic details – the chorus could pass for Mad Men extras, though gazing at iPads and occasionally filming proceedings on their smart phones. At the opera’s outset, Peter Auty’s Faust resembles little more than a burnt-out, middle-aged executive – eye-catching, morphing computer graphics hinting at his scientific achievements. His cerebral career hasn’t left him much time for fleshly pleasures; his suicide threats cue the entrance of James Creswell’s scene-stealing Méphistophélès (pictured below), a sharply dressed, ponytailed charmer who appears to be channelling Robert de Niro’s Louis Cyphre from the film Angel Heart.

James Creswell as MephistophelesWhen Méphistophélès takes possession of Faust’s soul, he physically removes the heart – a deliciously repellent moment, made more repulsive by his coyly placing the bloody object into a small perspex box. Faust’s rejuvenation is neatly achieved through cosmetic surgery – though, apart from removing his glasses, he seems remarkably unchanged. And there’s this production’s biggest problem – Auty thereafter remains an inoffensive chap in a grey suit, still charisma-deficient and rarely seeming heroic. Which is such a shame, as Auty’s voice is one of this production’s glories, his lyrical high register never showing signs of strain.

Video artist Lillevan’s projections soon establish themselves as the production’s dominant element, enabling Ran Arthur Braun’s austere set to be transformed in seconds. White screens slide from left to right - a wonderful, practical device, but on more than one occasion I was worried that Auty’s Faust would be bloodily bisected after failing to dodge one. White cubes, reminiscent of a Tate installation, fulfil ingenious multiple roles, among them jewel boxes, giant dice and podiums. Lillevan’s visual effects are frequently stunning – the casino imagery in Act 2 after Méphistophélès sings of the value of money is eye-popping, as is the stark, white abortion clinic at the opening of Act 4. There’s a brilliant, tiny moment in the Jewel Song where Juanita Lascarro’s Marguerite gazes at herself, briefly spotlit by the flash of paparazzi cameras. Lascarro is physically and vocally perfect for the role. You can imagine exactly why a depressive 50-something male would go off the rails in pursuit.

Sarah Pring as Marthe, Marcin Bronikowski as Valentin and Juanita Lascarro as MargueriteGounod’s chorus of soldiers and villagers are depicted as supporters of Marcin Bronikowski’s Valentin (pictured left), who resembles a Republican US presidential candidate. This has some darkly comic potential, notably the crowd defending themselves against Méphistophélès using bibles and beer bottles held in the shape of the cross, although seeing the same chorus members holding anti-abortion placards at the start of Act 4 feels forced and uncomfortable. As with so many Opera North productions, the chorus is consistently magnificent, particularly in the brief unaccompanied prayer heard soon after Valentin’s death. Stuart Stratford’s conducting makes Gounod’s music sound rich, profound and defiantly unfrothy. There are no weak links in the supporting roles – Robert Anthony Gardiner and Sarah Pring are excellent as Siébel and Marthe. Marvel at the visual effects and lighting, Wince at the final image, and breathe a sigh of relief as the house lights come on.

Lascarro is physically and vocally perfect for the role. You can imagine exactly why a depressive fifty-something male would go off the rails in pursuit

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Comments

Hang on - a male singing mezzo trousers role Siebel? That needs a bit of explaining - unless they used a treble (which would be interesting).

How much did Opera North pay this reviewer to write this rubbish? I thought their production of Norma was bad enough but this production is ten times worse! What we were looking at on the stage bore no relation to the wonderful music we were listening to. The singers and we the audience were fighting a losing battle against the irrelevant and pointless distractions of the projections and videos constantly flashing in the background. This lot should be prosecuted for destroying a magnificent opera and wasting public money in the process.

Having seen productions of this sort, I so sympathise with you. I enjoyed listening to it on Radio 3!

Actually I found the connections made to current social issues quite powerful, and not distracting, but demanding. I believe the devices used enable younger critically minded audiences to relate to the opera and see its relevance.

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