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Faust (Leeds)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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There are many excellent designer/directors of opera, but I always fear that “designers’ opera” can place the designs centrally and forget about the people. Designer/director Ran Arthur Braun and his co-director Rob Kearley have some vigorous things to say in the programme about involving the singers, but in truth there is little sign of it in Opera North’s new production of Gounod’s Faust.

The distinctive features of Braun and Kearley’s production are the use of projections for scenery, atmosphere and comment and the desire to present a Faust for today. The projections certainly give flexibility, but are often a fidgety distraction and the directors’ love of hauling in large boxes means that speed and fluidity are lost anyway. Unfortunately the world of 2012 is hardly analogous to a story which depends so totally on demonic possession. Equivalents are found (the pursuit of youth turns into plastic surgery – fair comparison), but often the stage action is in direct contradiction to the text and the music.

Furthermore, whatever else it is, Faust is a romantic opera – and this production has as much romance as a day at the Stock Exchange. Faust and his beloved Marguerite mostly keep their distance from each other, Mephistopheles’ Gothic flamboyance is diluted by his drab lounge suit, the jostling crowds of revellers or soldiers seem to be gentleman bankers out on a spree.

But, of course, as an evening at the opera it’s better than that. Peter Auty} is a gauche Faust, but one whose sterling tenor is, if anything, ringing truer at the end of a long evening than at the beginning. In the early scenes [Juanita Lascarro does little more than sing sweetly, but the collapse of Marguerite’s world reveals more intensity and power without compromising her beauty of tone – it would be nice to see her in a more singer-friendly production. The excellent James Creswell does much to make Mephistopheles a figure of menace, with his dark bass and superb control of line. Marcin Bronikowski and Sarah Pring as Valentin and Marthe respectively are strong casting indeed, though she is hampered by an absurd characterisation – sort of Hyacinth Bucket as played by Alan Partridge’s Lynn! The casting of a male, Robert Anthony Gardiner, as Siebel, usually a “trouser role” for a mezzo, passes almost unnoticed.

Some sluggish tempos in the first half are unhelpful, but Stuart Stratford gets some fine playing from his orchestra, particularly in the big set pieces. With the Chorus making its usual impact the great choruses sound wonderful, even when the stage action is merely irritating. The Song of the Golden Calf, with Creswell and orchestra in fine form, does far more to remind us of the seductive appeal of evil than any of the production’s little trickeries, and at the end, as Marguerite calls on the angels, Lascarro, Auty, Creswell and the orchestra almost make us forget it’s been a long evening – almost!

Faust runs at Leeds Grand Theatre until 3 November.


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