By Charles Gounod
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
Making a “deal with the devil” is a ubiquitous theme embraced by media as diverse as The Bible, Delta Blues music, and the popular animated television series “The Simpsons”. No matter the source, few interpretations of the theme can match Faust for soul searing self-doubt and tragedy. This is the granddaddy of infernal contracts and in the hands of a maestro intimately acquainted with French opera repertoire and a cutting edge young director, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s latest production of this Gounod masterwork is a visually stunning and musically riveting experience.
Most striking is the collaboration of artist John Frame (production designer) and David Adam Moore (projection designer) as they create a fascinating window into Faust’s inner world. A complex layering of stop-action animation, projected silhouettes, television screens and lighted scrims evokes the protagonist’s restless longing, as well as his manipulative nature. Frame’s wooden sculptures, puppet-like figures that recall artists’ manikins, have a chillingly lifeless quality, yet they also convey a certain empty sadness that perfectly matches Faust’s own.
As the opera begins we find ourselves in Faust’s studio, where the frail and elderly philosopher is trying to raise himself from bed. Surrounded by the detritus of a scholarly life, he despairs that his time is slipping away and the knowledge of the infinite he seeks is escaping his grasp. He regrets foregoing a full life and youthful love in his pursuit of knowledge. In desperation he pours poison into a goblet and prepares to drink it, but the distant happy voices of men and women in the fields celebrating the coming spring give him pause. Frustrated, he curses knowledge, philosophy and religion. He then calls on Satan for advice. For a wonderfully kitschy moment we see the outsized shadow of Mephistopheles, the Devil’s messenger complete with dramatic stand-up collar and horns, before a studio drop-cloth is raised to reveal a tall, stylishly dressed man in a flame-colored plaid suit complete with red boots and cravat, his perfectly pointed beard and curling mustache framing a wicked smile.
As Faust and Mephistopheles, Benjamin Bernheim and Christian Van Horne are deftly cast, both vocally and physically. A lauded European tenor, Bernheim is possessed of a pure, lustrous voice with a beautifully unadorned quality that perfectly conveys Faust’s naked emotions. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horne, a celebrated Ryan Opera Center alumnus, makes a welcome return to Lyric as the debonair demon who is determined to bring about Faust’s downfall. His tall, slender physique and enviable acting chops give Mephistopheles just the right amount of evil swagger, while his impressive vocal interpretations strike the perfect tone for a somewhat reluctant villain. Surrounded by a clutch of grotesque minions (Frame’s singular vision expressed here in the form of highly sculpted masks), Van Horne cuts quite a menacing figure.
Given the choice of wealth or power in exchange for eternal damnation, Faust instead chooses youth, after Mephistopheles tempts him with a vision of a beautiful young woman. We suspect, as the story progresses, that the soul Satan is really after is that of the impossibly virtuous Marguerite (Ailyn Pérez), whom Faust eventually seduces and then abandons. Ms. Pérez, a Chicago native who makes her Lyric staged opera debut in this production, displays an impressive vocal range that serves her well in Marguerite’s placid opening scenes, as well as taking command of the ambitious and emotional arias later in the opera. Baritone Edward Parks as Valentin, Annie Rosen as Siébel (a village boy who loves Marguerite) and mezzosoprano Jill Grove as Marthe round out a top-notch cast.
With Faust, Gounod strikes compelling balances between deep emotion and dramatic spectacle, intimate serenades and rousing choruses, the glory of love and the tragedy of damnation. We travel between these diverse emotions and settings at an exciting pace, and under the insightful direction of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, the Lyric Opera Orchestra transports the audience seamlessly from one vignette to the next with masterful precision and grace. As always Michael Black’s incomparable chorus creates an exterior world for the characters of Faust to inhabit, from rollicking tavern to candlelit cathedral. With this visionary new production, director Kevin Newbury triumphs with a combination of brisk pacing, visual complexity and the flawed anti-heroes that contemporary audiences crave, without losing sight of the universal conflict at the heart of the Faust legend.
(“Faust,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through March 21 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive 312-827-5600)
Faust production photos by Cory Weaver and Andrew Cioffi.