Where is Opera North’s Quality Control?

17 Nov

On 16th November at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, I saw Opera North’s latest Faust. It happened to be the 100th performance that I’ve seen them give.  As I’ve said before, I admire this company hugely.  However, every now and then it falls flat on its face and you wonder who actually let it get this far.  Up until now the absolute nadir was their Entführung – the one with the panda.  This Faust runs it pretty close and, actually, may well be even worse.

Although the opera’s been done reasonably frequently in London over the last 40 years, it hasn’t been performed much outside.  Indeed, I think this was the first fully professional performance in Newcastle in 50 years or more.  This performance made me realise why and, frankly, I think Newcastle could have waited a little longer.

It’s not an easy opera for these times.  It’s a piece of high Victorian hokum with magic, a comic devil, seduction, a church scene and the poor wronged Marguerite being saved by a host of angels.  It has soldiers, fights, jewels, death scenes and grand tunes.  You can go in there without many brain cells engaged and just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.  I’m not sure that it was intended as any more than a piece of unchallenging entertainment – one that met the particular aesthetic of  the time.  I don’t think it has a lot of social relevance now.  It works as a sort of pantomime and, in the right hands – such as Ian Judge’s in his 1986 ENO production – can even be moderately exciting and moving.  In the theatre, Les Miserables is probably the nearest equivalent but, actually, culturally, James Bond might be closer.  It helps if there’s a big budget.

Now I don’t have a problem with updates or productions that depart from the composer’s intentions – whatever that means – but it has to be done well.  This production was rather like seeing a James Bond film minus the car chases, escape scenes, exotic locations or glamorous women.   What Rob Kearley and Ran Arthur Braun, together with a “visual artist” called Lillevan did was to provide a set with a group of moving screens.  On these they projected a series of images.  Some of these were of Manhatten – presumably, given the costumes, where the action is set.  Others were of the faces of the characters with varying expressions, none of them very helpful.  Then there were images of raindrops, of smoke, of graphs of what looked like frogspawn and these moved and changed in a way that seemed to have very little to do with whatever was actually happening onstage and distracted you from it.  What was worse was that they seemed quite amateurishly put together.  From where I was sitting at the side of the auditorium, the images didn’t quite fit on all of the screens, looked a bit fuzzy and the characters cast shadows on them.  It all looked a bit like a pretentious art-student’s production – the sort you’d go to and think that they might do better when they’d grown up a bit.  I didn’t think a lot of the production, but it would have been infinitely improved without the images.

The opera was updated and, in the programme notes, Kearley and Braun talked about making it relevant to an age of technology.  What that seemed to mean was a society that used smart phones and Ipads to film Faust’s attempted suicide and Valentin’s death, the waltz scene taking place in a casino and Valentin being the leader of a right wing religious political party.  Faust has plastic surgery to make him look young. Marguerite has an abortion and the Soldiers’ chorus becomes an anti-abortion rally.  Now that chorus has often been played as anti-war episode with wounded and maimed soldiers returning.  Here, there wasn’t a military uniform in sight but the projected translation still referred to returning from battle and, if you are going to change the status of the number completely, I think you should change the surtitles as well.

You could see the germs of ideas there but there was too much that was confused.  Magic seemed to be entirely drained out of the production – why do you need Mephistopheles if all Faust gets is plastic surgery to make him look youthful?  You don’t get the wine being changed, there are no swords (Valentin refers to his “metal” being broken, whatever that means) and the last few scenes, particularly those after Valentin’s death, are heavily cut and utterly incoherent.  There would have been a frisson for the Victorians watching the devil tempt Marguerite in church.  You don’t have to do it like that but here there was no sense of anything much happening there.  I had no sense of Faust being damned at the end or, indeed, of Marguerite being saved.  I defy anyone to tell me what the directors thought was going on there.

Above all, it looked cramped and ugly.  It was a busy production but I would have expected that, given that much of Braun’s experience is as a movement director and fight choreographer, that the chorus movement would have been less incoherent and fights less risible.  They clearly had a budget of about 50p but does that excuse the sheer ugliness of the costumes?

And where was the direction of Opera North in all this?  I think it’s fair to say that neither director has had significant experience of putting on their own shows (as opposed to assisting other people) for companies of the size and status of Opera North.  I’m all for young talent being given a chance, but could somebody not have stepped in or produced some guidance when it became clear that, visually, this was going to be a complete mess and, really, something that would do Opera North no good to its paying public?

I felt sorry for the singers.  James Creswell came out of the whole thing best.  His voice sounds a perfect fit for Mephistopheles and I thought that his witty, malevolent, knowing performance was the outstanding performance of the evening.  When he was singing you could ignore the rest of the chaos and enjoy the sheer confidence and exhileration of what he did.  I regret missing his ENO Dutchman.

Peter Auty was a brave Faust.  He wasn’t helped to look convincing by his crumpled suit.  He sang tirelessly with ringing tone.  What I missed was the sort of elegance and finesse that Gedda or Kraus have brought.  He didn’t make it sound easy.  Juanita Lascarra was a nice Marguerite who again, managed the role well vocally and gave quite a lot of pleasure.  Marcin Bronikowski was a splendid Valentin and Sarah Pring a neatly observed Marthe.  We had a tenor Siebel and Robert Anthony Gardiner looked appropriately youthful and gauche but sounded tested by the music.  The chorus did what the could.

Stuart Stratford conducted a very decent, performance that kept the piece moving and shaped the melodies well.

So, overall, quite a dispiriting evening and one that shook slightly even my loyalty to this company.  The theatre wasn’t full and I wonder how many people who are less addicted to opera than I am, wondered why they had paid so much money to see such incoherent, incomplete drivel.  The company needs to get its quality control sorted quickly.

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One Response to “Where is Opera North’s Quality Control?”

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  1. Faith restored in Opera North « operanotes - November 18, 2012

    […] the truly horrible Faust of the night before, Don Giovanni on 17th November made me realise exactly why Opera North is so […]

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