For many years, Faust was perhaps one of the most iconic operas circulating European opera houses. Consisting of an intricate plot dealing with morality and death, Opera North’s performance of Gounod’s Faust was perhaps too contemporary, too complicated and too inaccessible. The performance took place at Theatre Royal Nottingham, directed by Ran Arthur Braun and Rob Kearley, conducted by Stuart Stratford.
Contemporary opera and modern adaptations of famous operas are following an ever-expanding trend in the use of visual arts. Ultimately, the aim is to make a production more accessible and relevant to a modern audience, increasing the audience’s ability to participate and relate to the opera itself. Unfortunately, the use of visual art in Faust was not to the production’s credit.
Ran Arthur Braun, Set and Visual Designer, designed a staging that throughout made use of visual images projected onto the stage. At first, it is very easy to gloss over abstract images that do not make sense, however by the end of a three-hour opera, you begin to wonder how integral this feature is. Quite frankly, this obsession with image and technology in modern society, although representing a justifiable theme, muddled the libretto itself and created a lack of continuity in the drama.
By no means was the visual art the only problem. The decision to adapt this ‘timeless’ libretto into a contemporary setting forced the audience to watch, yet another, presidential election campaign, the campaign of Valetin (Marcin Bronikowski). The Chorus of Opera North were therefore characterised to act as supporters of Valentin’s political party, obsessed with capturing his every moment. Even as Valentin collapses to his death in the fourth act, the supporters capture each moment on their iPhone/iPad. With such a forceful adaption truly focusing on Valentin, you would think the opera’s title of Faust misleading.
It was not until the third act that the drama truly began to unravel as Faust’s love for Marguerite is revealed; that this modern adaptation did appear to have some purpose and narrative. The stunning arias by Faust (Peter Auty) and Marguerite (Juanita Lascarro) were executed brilliantly with elegance phrasing and delicate tone; two sublime moments in the opera.
Following his spectacular performance in The Makropulos Case, James Creswell returned as Mephistopheles and once again stole the stage. Demonstrating his versatile characterisation and voice, Creswell linked the narrative together poignantly and added emotional depth and humour to essentially a tragic drama.
The Orchestra of Opera North performed Gounod’s orchestration with perfection, while the Chorus were not always musically convincing. The decision to incorporate the chorus as a key element in the adaptation, notably in acts two and four, jeopardised the vocal quality and pronunciation of the chorus.
When it comes to trying something new, I am more than happy to give it a go. However, I disapproved of this evening’s performance, not on a musical level but purely from a directional perspective. This contemporary adaption made the libretto complex, adding new dimensions to the drama and perhaps losing the true integral narrative from the libretto itself. A disappointing performance by Opera North, and I would not recommend it to a viewer that has not previously watched a ‘traditional’ staging of the opera.
All images by Tristram Kenton