The set for this Faust is a series of blank screens, which slide about quickly and frequently, tall canvases for constantly changing images provided by Berlin-based video artist Lillevan. This, along with large white cubes which become boxes for Marguerite’s jewels and for the extracted hearts collected by Méphistophélès, make it seem as if the whole thing is part of an elaborate installation, spellbinding in itself. It would not be out of place in Tate Modern. According to a comment in the programme by Rob Kearley, co-director with Ran Arthur Braun, the kaleidoscopic set (together with some major cuts and rearrangements in the fourth and fifth acts) is part of a bold plan to make the old favourite “contemporary” – a word with a myriad connotations, well-used in the operatic world – and to place it in “a political environment where everything is heightened, forced, false and manufactured”. The central part of the plan requires the audience to imagine that everything is happening right now in the United States, at a time when political campaigning is at its height.

Robert Anthony Gardiner as Siébel and Marcin Bronikowski as Valentin with the Chorus of Opera North © Tristram Kenton
Robert Anthony Gardiner as Siébel and Marcin Bronikowski as Valentin with the Chorus of Opera North
© Tristram Kenton

At first Faust (Peter Auty) is linked to high finance, a man in a suit with a mid-life crisis who teeters on a window-sill above what can be assumed to be a pavement near Wall Street, observed by a crowd down below equipped with smartphones waiting for his jump. Méphistophélès (James Cresswell) whips out his immortal soul, a heart-like object, and masked, green-smocked surgeons loom backstage to make Faust forever young through cosmetic surgery, ready and able to enjoy to the full all the hedonistic pleasures. Cresswell’s rondo “Le veau d’or” is splendidly delivered, busy roulette tables featuring on the screens as money falls like confetti. So far, so promising: this must all relate to Mammon and casino banking, to obsessions with the latest technology and to plain old-fashioned greed. There are few problems here with the suspension of disbelief.

It gets harder later. Marguerite’s campaigning brother Valentin (the superb Marcin Bronikowski) is a kind of Southern Baptist politician, his followers waving aloft holy books coyly decorated with coloured stripes. They are enthusiastic anti-abortionists who wield placards (blank, to enable video messages) outside a clinic after Marguerite (Juanita Lascarro) has got rid of her baby, and this updating grates badly, not only because it implies that a modern termination is equivalent to the infanticide committed by Marguerite in the original version while her mind is wandering, but also because it is difficult to cram the devout Catholicism of Gounod’s France into an “equivalent” 21st-century fundamentalist Christian frame without amending the opera too drastically.

The whole performance is enjoyable because of the consistently good singing and the orchestra of Opera North conducted by Stuart Stratford, which can be relied upon to be terrific. Of course, Gounod can withstand most slings and arrows, with his scintillating melodic lines and a quality in his work which was described as “seraphically soothing” by George Bernard Shaw. Peter Auty as Faust is at his most compelling when he is in miserable mode, full of yearning, not necessarily when he lets rip with his ardour, but his effortless, lyrical soaring gives plenty of plus-points to the production. James Cresswell as a pony-tailed, sharp-dressing Méphistophélès is particularly notable, with ravishingly evil laughter and a powerful, rich bass voice which I heard first when he was Fasolt in Opera North’s Das Rheingold in Leeds Town Hall. He has a scene-stealing presence, dancing in delight, exercising his will on Marthe (Sarah Pring) with devilish charm, and serenading Marguerite with a shudder-inducing sarcasm: “Vous qui faites l’endormie” is a high point.

Juanita Lascarro, in her Opera North debut, fits the role of Marguerite perfectly: her gathering exhilaration as she tries on glittering earrings in the Jewel Song is finely calculated, and her contribution to the final scenes is quite gripping. Robert Anthony Gardiner makes it clear that young Siébel should always be a tenor and not a mezzo-soprano, Valentin’s death at the hands of Faust has great dramatic force, and the Chorus is a lovely sonorous beast as usual, sometimes agile and adrenalin-filled, sometimes simply sublime. "Vin ou bière” is a triumph, and Marguerite is sent to her heavenly home in great style in the finale.

The singers are never overwhelmed by the orchestration – Gounod was better than other composers in this respect – but they do at times seem at risk of being upstaged by shifting clouds of colour, or by huge, transmogrifying depictions of themselves. A balance is achieved for much of the time, but there are moments when the video is irritating, when it threatens to steal the show.