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The Damnation of Faust, Opera North,The Lowry

May 20 2003 Glyn Mon Hughes, DAILY POST, Liverpool

BERLIOZ'S Damnation of Faust is something of a peculiarity. It has all the right ingredients for a stirring, dramatic opera, but it's not written that way. On the other hand, it's a powerful oratorio which just cries out to be staged.

And that was the dilemma facing Opera North who came up with an inventive, if not ingenious, solution, the brainchild of staging director Matthias Janser.

They cleverly assembled the chorus in the traditional manner while much of the action took place front stage with a transparent screen onto which was projected various rather grimy images. Lighting was subtle, well thought out.

But what is the fascination for this melodrama? Why have so many people been influenced by a medieval tale of good and bad, a belief in heaven and hell and a fascination as to which way a soul eventually goes?

IT'S probably the pure drama of the whole thing, a belief that we can 'get away with it', that humans can cheat the 'system'. And there's the pure drama of watching the unfortunate Faust fall to his fate.

Berlioz's score - all too rarely heard - is a huge canvas which tells the tale in quite lurid detail. There is quite spectacularly inventive writing for orchestra - as always expertly played by Opera North and conducted incisively by Frederic Chaslin.

Faust was sung by the American tenor Stephen O'Mara who took over from Rafael Rojas. It's a demanding role and he sang in a commanding manner.

Alastair Miles, who was to have sung Mephistopheles, was also taken ill and his role was taken over by Petri Lindroos, making a perhaps rather faltering stab at the part. These were both debut Opera North performances for O'Mara and Lindroos.

Lilli Paasikivi proved a magnificent Marguerite in what eventually proved an entertaining - and certainly educating - performance.