Faust, ***/ The Makropulos Case,****

Opera North, Grand Theatre, Leeds

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The Independent Culture

Gounod's Faust, once the most popular opera in the world, is now very much an also-ran. It is so much a period piece that it presents obvious production problems. Directors Rob Kearley and Ran Arthur Braun have brought it into the urban present, which avoids the banalities of costume drama and works well in some respects.

It is apt that Marguerite opts for an abortion rather than murdering her child outright. And Valentin as a presidential candidate who goes off to his campaign is a fresh turn.

The production relies heavily on video projections- fine if they were not so repetitive- but the singing and acting are generally strong. Peter Auty takes the title role with eloquence and assurance, and Juanita Lascarro is a suitably gentle and touching Marguerite. But it is James Creswell as Méphistophélès who dominates the show with a commanding performance which is also elegant, witty and full of panache. There is strong support from an enlarged chorus and the excellent orchestra conducted by Stuart Stratford.

It's taken a while, but Janacek now occupies a secure place in the standard operatic repertoire. Quite right too, but you notice that it is the two most conventional narrative pieces, Jenufa and Kata Kabanova, that are the most performed.

So good on Opera North who over the past few seasons have staged all six of Janacek’s mature operas, concluding this autumn with The Makropulos Case, the story of a woman who has lived for more than three hundred years and is tired of immortality.

It is a philosophical comedy, a detective story laced with reflections on mortality. It is also Janacek’s most modern and sophisticated opera score, and the orchestra under Richard Farnes gives a sharp and brilliant account of it. Tom Cairns’ staging is relatively straightforward but always clear and a large cast sing and act strongly. As Emilia Marty (or Elina Makropulos) Ylva Kihlberg gives a consummate performance, rising superbly to the heights of the overwhelming final scene. This, the least familiar and accessible of this autumn’s three operas, is nonetheless the real gem of the season.

Until November 3rd, then touring to Salford, Newcastle & Nottingham