There's a general perception, I think, that opera is kind of old, and stuffy, and elitist. If I asked you to picture your idea of a typical opera-goer, I'm betting there's a good chance you'll think of a posho posh elderly couple - he has a grey suit, and a slightly military bearing, and possibly a handkerchief a-poking out his top pocket; she has a tidy bouffant updo, and a twinset, and possibly a pince-nez. And I'm not denying that there weren't plenty such in evidence at The Lowry this week when Opera North rolled into town, bearing tasty mid-week treats in the form of Faust on Tuesday night and Don Giovanni on Wednesday, but they certainly were not in the majority - what Opera North do best is make this most majestic of all the theatrical arts accessible, appealing, and - dare I say it - sexy to all.
And I do mean ALL - I can pay no finer accolade to Opera North than by pointing out that, on a busy night of European football action, Mr Liz actually requested to come and see Gounod's Faust with me on Tuesday. This classic tale of a middle-aged scholar and his desperate yearnings to relive the pleasures of his youth (hmmm - *looks closely at self in the mirror*) was first performed in 1859 and has been an Opera North favourite since 1986; the current production opened to rave reviews in Leeds last month.
You probably know the story already - Dr Faust is a lonely man, getting older and feeling all alone in a world he no longer relates to; he contemplates suicide, and calls upon Satan, who duly appears and offers him renewed youth and all its pleasures in exchange for the trifling consideration of his immortal soul. The clincher here is the vision that Mephistopheles shows him of Marguerite, a beautiful young woman who - the devil suggests - can be Faust's if he agrees to make the deal; Faust thinks long and hard for about half a second and agrees. He is transformed into an attractive young man (albeit minus his soul, which now glows becomingly in the devil's greedy mitt) and begins his pursuit of Marguerite; I will reveal no more of the plot but will suggest that all of this is unlikely to end well, lest we all start following Faust's example, handing over our souls to any passing charmer (hmmm - *looks closely at self in the mirror, again*).
As ever with Opera North, the central performances are flawless - Peter Auty shines as Faust, and I am finding James Creswell FAR too sexy as Mephistopheles by the end of the show. Juanita Lascarro is also most convincing as the chaste young girl who gamely resists Faust's advances until he showers her with shedloads of diamonds (*mirror now on floor, smashed*). The updating is as inventive as ever - the chorus takes the guise of a bunch of immoral, greedy, lascivious bankers, storming the stage importantly wielding their iPads, and much use is made of sliding screens onto which are projected various images which are often suitably dark and unsettling (but which do at times become a little distracting).
Anyway, after all this brilliant darkness, and passion, and death, it is fortunate that Wednesday night's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni is played very much for laughs. This is an equally familiar tale - Don G is a serial charmer and seducer, making a string of empty promises to all the women he meets and then leaving them heartbroken and - in the case of his magnificent former conquest Elvira - more than a little cross. We follow him on his eventful last day, which begins with a grope that goes very wrong and ends with a splendidly baroque picnic with a dead man, with just time to seduce a bride on her wedding day in between.
I know that this perhaps doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs (particularly as, the same as Faust, we know that things cannot possibly end well for a man who is mean to women and goes round killing people, or they'd all be doing it), but it really is. This is largely due to the character of Don G's increasingly frustrated servant Leporello, who spends most of his time either keeping watch while his master is seducing his latest lady friend or avoiding a comedy beating from all the previous ones; he is splendidly played by Alastair Miles with a perfect combination of righteous anger and a keen urge to get laid himself, just once. Other standout performances come from the women - Elizabeth Atherton makes for a feisty Elvira, alternating between a classy laydee and a dejected, pouting figure dressed in Desperately Seeking Susan era Madonna-esque lace, whilst Claire Wild's turn as Zerlina, the innocent young bride who turns out to have a great deal of inner raunch, contains one song (delivered from atop her new husband) that you probably won't forget in a while.
The staging is also quite brilliant, relying heavily on use of puppets - characters often appear as scaled down, mannequin-like versions of themselves, and the moment at the end when our philandering hero finally meets his maker is quite something. It also goes without saying that in both productions the music is flawless - Opera North might play it for laughs sometimes, but they always take the essentials seriously, which probably explains why they appeal to both opera purists and to people like me and my Wednesday companion (who particularly enjoys the bit where Don G buries his face in a pair of boob-shaped jellies). In fact, as she was, until Wednesday, an opera virgin, I will use her words to sum up her cherry-popping experience: stunning, brilliant...and SAUCY. And that, I would say, sums up Opera North pretty well.
- You can find out more about Opera North here, and about The Lowry and their other productions here.