After three weeks of overdosing on Wagner’s Ring in London, I travelled up to Leeds for a temporary reprieve from the Teutonic turmoil and to wallow in some gloriously slushy French romanticism. And opera doesn’t get much slushier than Gounod’s Faust, here performed by Opera North in an innovative new modern-dress production directed by Ran Arthur Braun and Rob Kearley, which ruthlessly strips the piece of all supernatural aspects and its melodramatic grand opera feel, yet tells the story from a gripping and totally believable contemporary angle which all of us can relate to in the money-obsessed world we live in today.
When I heard that this new Faust would be a ‘multi-media’ production I admit that my heart sank. The Faust legend may be timeless and humanity’s struggle against the temptation of evil just as relevant today as it was in the Middle Ages, but the story originates from a time when Europeans universally believed in God and genuinely feared the Devil. Transplant the action to today’s increasingly atheist Western society and the director automatically faces difficult challenges, not to mention that the crux of the story revolves around the ruin of an innocent teenage girl whose life is totally destroyed when Faust gets her pregnant and abandons her. How can you maintain the devastating dramatic impact of such a situation in a modern-day society where women have easy access to emergency contraception and abortion, and where there’s no longer much stigma attached to being an unmarried teenage mother in the first place? Braun and Kearley’s production manages surprisingly well, although some of their ideas work better than others.
There is no real set to speak of, merely a collection of white sliding panels onto which video imagery is projected to establish location and mood, together with a couple of large white cubes for singers to sit on. We find ourselves in a soulless modern city where Faust is not a decrepit old academic but a frustrated 50-something businessman having a mid-life crisis, threatening to jump from an office window while a crowd of gawping bystanders callously film the whole thing on their iPhones. Méphistophélès wears a sleek designer suit in a satanic shade of burgundy and achieves his malevolent goals through entirely non-magical means, ‘rejuvenating’ Faust simply by paying a team of plastic surgeons to give the tenor a face lift. Poor Faust doesn’t get much value for money out of this devilish pact; when he re-appears minus the geeky glasses and looking much the same as before one cannot help but muse that he’s sold his soul in exchange for nothing more than corrective laser eye surgery and a nose job! Valentin is portrayed as a right-wing American politician, fighting a campaign to be elected president for a devoutly Christian pro-life party, with Marthe and Siébel cast as his West Wing-style advisors and Marguerite the supportive sister standing by his side – an intriguing concept which I thought worked extremely well. The killing of Marguerite’s illegitimate child controversially takes place in an abortion clinic – a daring but thought-provoking idea, although it causes a huge problem with the ending because if Marguerite’s pregnancy is terminated perfectly legally then why is she imprisoned and sentenced to death for the crime of infanticide?
The Personenregie is engaging and imaginatively thought out, although some aspects of the staging didn’t work – the duel is reduced to a totally bloodless fist fight between two middle-aged men and Faust merely stabs his opponent with the thin gold cross Valentin wore around his neck, not exactly a dangerous weapon likely to cause a fatal injury. The Walpurgisnacht ‘party’ is a total non starter, with the ladies’ chorus just standing around at the back of the stage in their usual frumpy day clothes. Where’s the glamour, the sex and the wild champagne and cocaine-fuelled lifestyle that any modern-day Méphisto would be using to seduce Faust’s senses at this point? The ballet was totally cut too, and the point of the entire scene was lost. These issues aside, I really enjoyed Braun and Kearley’s new take on the piece and found the use of video imagery (designed by Lillevan) to be particularly effective and atmospheric.
In the title role, Peter Auty is dramatically convincing as an anguished middle-aged man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Possessing a very attractive and bright tenor voice, Auty’s singing was heartfelt and moving, although some of his high notes felt laboured and he didn’t hit a clean top C in “Salut! demeure chaste et pure”. The Act III love duet “O nuit d’amour!” was ardently sung, with Auty’s full-bodied timbre blending beautifully with the creamy tones of Juanita Lascarro’s Marguerite, here portrayed as an older, more sophisticated heroine rather than an innocent young girl from a humble background. Ms Lascarro’s soprano is vibrant and her ‘King of Thule’ ballad was poised and graceful, although I was less certain about some of her trills in the Jewel Song. She acted the part with great sensitivity and pathos; the church scene in particular was chilling to watch, as she was physically dragged around the stage and cruelly taunted by James Creswell’s vindictive Méphistophélès.
They say the Devil gets the best tunes and in this opera Méphisto can easily steal the show, especially when he’s played by a singer with a voice as gorgeously seductive as James Creswell. I’d seen the American bass in a couple of smaller roles in the past but it was his Dutchman at ENO this spring which really made me sit up and pay attention. The voice is intensely rich and velvety in timbre, endowed with a stylish elegance that puts him in a class of his own. He also possesses the charisma and acting skills to match; his Méphisto effortlessly commands the stage every time he sets foot upon it, a fascinating character who is dangerously manipulative but at the same time irresistibly suave. His “Le veau d’or” was thrillingly sung and I felt cheated that the first verse of his Act IV serenade “Vous qui faites l’endormie” was inexplicably cut, a futile gesture which would have knocked less than two minutes off the show’s total running time.
Baritone Marcin Bronikowski coped admirably with Valentin’s difficult aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux”, although he was clearly pushed to his limits by some parts of the high-lying tessitura. Like Faust, the character of Valentin is portrayed as a middle-aged man and though it worked as part of this particular directorial Konzept I did miss seeing the role played as it usually is; a young, hot-tempered soldier who would be a genuinely dangerous threat in any duel. The trouser role of Siébel is sung by Robert Anthony Gardiner – and yes, that’s definitely Robert not Roberta. This struck me as a bizarre decision, although I’m reliably informed that tenors were sometimes cast in this role in past, including a young José Carreras in Barcelona and Luigi Alva at La Scala. Gardiner has a pretty and very pure-sounding light tenor that would be ideally suited for church music, but I struggled to get over the initial shock of hearing a tenor singing “Faites-lui mes aveux” which came across, ironically, as somewhat effeminate. But his acting was very moving and the scene where he comforts Marguerite in the abortion clinic (“Si le bonheur”) brought an interesting dimension to the drama, as for the first time I saw a Siébel who actually stood a chance as a real rival to Faust, and a much nicer one at that. Sarah Pring’s bossy Marthe was very well played for maximum comedy value and I also liked Paul Gibson’s strongly sung Wagner.
Conductor Stuart Stratford started the overture at such a funereal pace that I initially feared we’d all still be sitting in the Grand Theatre at midnight. Fortunately he soon snapped out of it and after a somewhat sluggish opening scene things were nicely back on track and by Act II the orchestra and chorus were buzzing with energy in the Kermesse scene, here set in a casino. Otherwise, I generally enjoyed the spirited orchestral playing and this review was heading for a well-earned 4 stars until a couple of painfully brutal and clumsy musical cuts started to spoil it for me. Act IV opened with the spinning wheel scene, although Marguerite’s aria “Il ne revient pas” was cut and the church scene was played after the death of Valentin rather than beforehand. As well as chopping the first verse of Méphisto’s serenade, the beautiful introduction to the church scene was cut – all 29 bars of it, including the organ solo which sets the oppressive atmosphere so perfectly. Marguerite literally starts the unaccompanied “Seigneur, daignez permettre” as the chorus begging God to have mercy on Valentin’s soul comes to an end. But worst of all is the totally unsubtle jump from the end of Act IV into the start of Act V– Méphisto has no sooner sung “A toi l’enfer!” to poor Marguerite in church when Faust immediately interrupts with “Mon sang se glace!” and behold, we’re suddenly smack bang in the middle of the Walpurgisnacht scene (and in a totally different key, to boot). It’s sad that the musical integrity of the score has been thus butchered just to cut the running time by 15 minutes or so.
Despite these reservations, this new Faust makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening and comes highly recommended. Though I missed the supernatural elements of the story, it’s interesting to see this classic story told in such a refreshingly different way. After Leeds, Opera North take this production to Nottingham, Salford Quays and Newcastle and the strong vocal performances (particularly from Creswell’s excellent devil) make it an absolute must-see.
Photographs © Tristram Kenton