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October 15, 2012 6:03 pm
Opera companies that take risks, especially in times of austerity, are either foolish or brave. I’ll go for the latter. That’s why Opera North is always worth a visit. For Faust, the Leeds-based company has put its faith in a directorial partnership with no previous front-line credits. Ran Braun and Rob Kearley go for a blatantly contemporary interpretation of Gounod’s hoary old pot-boiler, filling the stage with screen projections. It looks good, but ultimately they are tripped up by inexperience.
The images they summon are so colourful, sophisticated and eye-catching that you can’t help wondering why such liberating technology hasn’t been used more often in place of the traditional clump of props and paintwork: cost and lack of know-how are probably the main factors. The problem for Braun and Kearley is that they have spent more time refining their video images than on defining their interpretative concept. They put the Faust legend into modern dress, turning the title character into a suit with a midlife crisis. In the opening scenes he undergoes some sort of plastic surgery (far from clear) before capitulating to the wiles of temptation. The story then gets drowned in scenes of “contemporary life” – a political campaign rally, a metropolitan hospital vestibule, an anti-abortion protest. Marguerite’s redemption is nonsensical, and by the end it’s hard to tell what the directing duo are trying to say – other than that they are technically adept at multimedia.
The fact that the show still packs a punch is entirely due to Gounod, whose three main characters are indestructible and whose music – I was glad to be reminded of this – consists of two-and-a-half hours of the most intoxicating tunes: no wonder Faust is regarded as a precursor of the 20th century musical. The score sounds fresh-minted, intensely dramatic, properly seductive. Stuart Stratford paces and balances it immaculately. He is the most impressive of Opera North’s recent guest conductors.
Despite some slick stage management, individual characterisations are of the cardboard variety. Peter Auty is the effortfully heroic Faust, Juanita Lascarro an insufficiently vulnerable Marguerite. Both are dwarfed by the stage-filling, pony-tailed Mephistopheles of James Creswell.
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