There was much anticipation Saturday night for the opening of “Faust” at Lyric Opera of Chicago in a new co-production with the Portland Opera. It’s certain that Gounod’s tale of the title character making a deal with the devil has never been told this way.
There’s probably a clear dividing line on this production. If you prefer a grand opera like “Faust” to be grand in terms of tradition and that sort of thing, then this probably wasn’t for you. If you are open to a more modern staging such as what you may get overseas, then this was a visual feast for the ages and shouldn’t be dismissed as regie-theater.
The headliner for this “Faust” was famed artist John Frame, well-known for his production design. Frame, working in opera for the first time, is known as a sculptor of found objects – or more accurately for a French opera, “objet trouvé.” The human figurines and/or puppets that he has built his reputation on are present throughout this rendering in numerous forms.
Frame’s artwork was combined with some fancy stop-motion animation that was under the auspices of projection designer David Adam Moore. It’s all evident right from the opening act in Faust’s workshop in which tenor Benjamin Bernheim’s title character is seen creating a devil-like figure. There’s a screen with projected images on the left side, an ominous bedsheet on the right serving as a screen with a mad scientist-like feel to this aging artist’s studio.
When Méphistophélès appears in a garish orange checkered suit through the large sheet and an image of Marguerite is projected on the large screen to the left, Faust opts for eternal youth. This Faust is transformed from an old man in a shabby raincoat into a younger man in an aqua blue suit and the game is now afoot.
More Visual Highlights
The costumes by designer Vita Tzykun brought the color to this concept and that was especially the case in Act two in the tavern with the townspeople dressed in various hues. It’s in contrast to the darkness that the set is bathed in, with four projection screens placed about in this setting.
Really, it’s impossible to discuss this production without explaining in some detail what each scene looked like. Marguerite’s garden in Act three features a stilt house in which four fiends of Méphistophélès reside underneath. These fiends wearing costumes depicting figures of Frame are omnipresent and serve as a reminder of the horrible set of circumstances the protagonist has created for himself.
Also notable was the church scene in Act four in which Marguerite tries to pray but is rudely interrupted by none other than Méphistophélès. It’s a barren, empty church except for projections of skeletons and crosses that yet again underline the predicament. The surroundings are uniquely hellish in the world put forth by director Kevin Newbury based on the ideas of Frame and Tzykun.
And the Music…
While even more can be said about the sights, this is, of course, a work by Gounod that features some of the best music in all of opera. That was clear on opening night under the baton of Emmanuel Villaume, who seemed to intuitively know what tempo to keep the proceedings at. He was doubly important in this performance with no prompter being used, causing some impressive adjustments on the fly by the maestro and the principals.
The Lyric orchestra was a resounding success throughout and, in continuing a theme for this season, Michael Black’s chorus elevated itself to new heights. The Act 2 “Vin ou biere” was sung with gusto and the Soldier’s chorus in Act three was absolutely magnificent.
Savoring the Singers
An extremely strong cast took advantage of this heavenly score with sensational singing. The veteran bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is a local favorite and his Méphistophélès was portrayed with nuance as a con man rather than someone completely without scruples. That made his characterization even more evil with every wink, smirk, and gesture.
The French tenor Ben Bernheim marked his American debut with a slow start as the aging artist before coming into his own as the man who has sealed his own fate. Bernheim’s big moment in his “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” in Act three featured the elegant, legato phrasing that has made him as one of the world’s rising singers. Before that, his declaration of love in Act two of “O belle enfant, je t’aime” was so powerful that it’s possible it shook the opera house.
One of the oddities of soprano Ailyn Pérez’s career is that the Chicago-born singer had yet to appear in a staged opera at the Lyric despite performing at many other notable companies around the world. Pérez can now check that accomplishment off after this night.
She had to overcome a quirk in that her Marguerite was portrayed as a cripple forced to limp around the stage with a crutch. Pérez didn’t let that deter her with a sparkling Jewel Song in Act three in front of that stilt house.
These signature moments for Bernheim and Pérez were occasions in which I felt the staging did slightly take away from the singers, with the machinations of the fiends or projected imagery distracting from their presence.
More Great Singing and Final Thoughts
Baritone Edward Parks was outstanding in his Lyric debut as Valentin with a tremendous “Avant de quitter ces lieux” in Act two as the protector of Marguerite. Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen, a recent Ryan Opera Center alum, made the most of her pants role as Siebel with a heartfelt rendition of her “Faites-lui mes âveux.” Veteran mezzo-soprano Jill Grove drew plenty of laughs for how her Marthe tried to seduce an unwilling Méphistophélès.
There is plenty to unpack in this “Faust” given the monumental vision of Newbury and the creative team. I believe that this concept of Faust being an artist in a state of confusion and fantasy works if a viewer allows it to work and not to burden his or her mind. Nothing more can be asked musically from this production under Villaume’s baton in what can only be called an ultimately satisfying operatic experience.