Faust, Grand Theatre, Leeds; Group 627/Rolf Hin, St John's, Smith Square, London

James Creswell's Méphistophélès is a witty revelation amid a host of strong performances in a Wall St spin on Gounod's damned opera

Once highly fashionable, Gounod's Faust occupies a curious position in the repertoire: too familiar to pique the interest of those who love to truffle out a rarity by Meyerbeer or Halévy; too French for those whose tastes are tuned to Verdi or Wagner; too intriguing a confection of sensuality, spectacle and piety to dismiss. In 2004, David McVicar's Royal Opera House production offered a lurid Second Empire fantasy of predatory grisettes and pregnant ballerinas. In 2010, Des McAnuff used imagery from Hiroshima and the First World War to lend grit to his English National Opera staging. Now, Ran Arthur Braun and Rob Kearley bring Faust into the 21st century for Opera North, in a production where the only suggestion of Frenchness is in the constant motion of soft-focus videos of the sort usually seen in perfume ads.

Youth is beauty and beauty youth in this skin-deep analogue with its soothingly expensive swish of sliding screens (designs by Braun, videos by Lillevan). Wretched with self-loathing and ennui, Peter Auty's Faust is teetering in mid-life crisis on top of a Wall Street skyscraper when up pops James Creswell's Méphistophélès, all wide-boy suit, ancient-rocker pigtail and red-carpet smile. As deals go, none is dodgier than the exchange of one's soul for eternal youth. Except, as here, the exchange of one's heart for a nose job.

Rhinoplasty taken care of, a rejuvenated Auty reels through the chorus of office workers and political apparatchiks that replace the burghers of the original, falling in hopeless love – or lust – with Juanita Lascarro's lonely Marguerite. Her priggish brother Valentin (Marcin Bronikowski) is a pro-life presidential candidate, Sarah Pring's Marthe his cougar running mate, while Marguerite's humiliation in Act IV takes place in an abortion clinic.

Oddly, this moral muddle scarcely disturbs what is a robust and persuasive reading of the score by conductor Stuart Stratford. Lillevan's flickering images of high finance, dirty politics and private angst move in approximate parallel to Gounod's velvet and organza orchestral textures. The chorus is engaged and the individual singing strong. Auty's soft-textured heart-on-sleeve old-fashioned timbre is well suited to Gounod, despite moments of tension, while Lascarro's Marguerite is sweetly understated. Pring has heaps of fun in her sexed-up role and Creswell's Méphistophélès is a revelation: loose-limbed, witty, idiomatically French in style and tone from the first pretty lie to the last sulphurous laugh.

The Smith Square Autumn Festival closed with a "Ssh!". This was the first sound in Group 627's late-night in-the-round performance of John Cage's Songbooks with pianist Rolf Hind, a sweet adieu to five days in which the normal rules did not apply. "Ssh!" is one of 92 solos in Songbooks, written to be performed in no pre-assigned order. Thus one listener was handed a pineapple ("I believe this is yours, sir!"), while a young man behind us quietly spoke in German, Italian, Swedish, Japanese ....

There were shuffles, thumps, bumps. Hind sipped from a mug of tea, a chef poured icing over a cake as a soprano sang a shivering cadenza. Images of Thoreau and Emerson were projected on to a screen. The national anthem was picked out on a keyboard while conductor Richard Heason breathed pitchlessly into what looked like a short didgeridoo. Limpid shreds of Schumann's Kinderszenen poured out of one speaker. A well-heeled lady in front of me got the giggles. Is it music? I don't know. But if someone were to tickle your brain, this is how it might manifest in sound.

As to Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, here was the purest beauty, the greatest simplicity, darting flames of bell and bell-like boy treble. Gyorgy Kurtag's ...quasi una fantasia... Opus 27 closed a barmy, balmy concert, Hind's icy scales conjuring a nocturne where the influence of Bartok could be felt in each ripple of the cimbalom, each narcotic drone from flute and violin.

'Faust' (0844 848 2700) to 3 Nov, then touring

 

Critic's Choice

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