Chicago Opera Review: FAUST (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on March 5, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Bold, eclectic and experimental, Lyric Opera’s new production (co-produced with Portland Opera) of Gounod’s Faust comes across as rather jumbled, a mishmash, a hodgepodge — even a farrago. Thought it might not be entirely coherent, the result is surprisingly enjoyable, thanks above all to Gounod’s searing and sumptuous score, an outstanding cast led by French tenor Benjamin Bernheim, and production designer John Frame’s intriguing aesthetic.

Gounod’s Faust, which debuted in 1859, is set to a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré based on the latter’s play Faust et Marguerite and Goethe’s Faust, Part One. (Goethe actually wrote two Faust plays.) The basic story is familiar: an aging Faust desires to be young again, and is granted his wish by the devil, Mephistopheles. Faust seduces Marguerite, kills her brother Valentin in a duel, and later visits her in prison. In the end, she rejects him and dies.

What is it all about? So many assumptions are required to make sense of these truncated episodes. Why does Faust fixate on Marguerite? Why does he abandon her when she is with child? Did she kill the child? Is that why she’s in prison? And what does Faust give Mephistopheles in exchange for his youth? All of these questions are left unanswered and unresolved by the current production.

Director Kevin Newbury aims to tell the story as if it is all a product of Faust’s imagination, which could help to explain why the above questions linger. Newbury’s hermeneutics also helps the audience to make some sense of the sculpted figure that is never absent from the stage, for its telescoping eye must be a symbol of Faust’s twisted imagination.

In a manner more typical of Chicago Opera Theater than Lyric Opera, Frame’s creative team utilizes projected images and video, courtesy of David Adam Moore. Rather than merely adding a further layer of artistry onto Vita Tzykun’s sets, they reinforce Newbury’s interpretation. Tzykun also designed the costumes, which add a welcome variety of colors to Frame’s otherwise dark and nearly monotone palette. Particularly stunning is the beautiful turquoise/teal hue of Valentin’s military coat. The outfitting of Faust and Mephistopheles, however, is obsequiously outré.

The real treat of this Faust production is Gounod’s gorgeous soundscapes, so exquisitely rendered by the Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, the Lyric Opera Chorus directed by Michael Black, and the outstanding cast of soloists. Benjamin Bernheim makes his American debut as the titular Faust, showcasing an expressive and powerful voice that manages to be both clear and silky smooth while remaining utterly French. Another new voice in this production is American baritone Edward Parks, who Lyric audiences will surely also wish to hear more of. His Valentin even manages to steal Act II from the dominantly debonair Mephistopheles with his lyrical aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux.”

More familiar to Lyric audiences is Christian Van Horn, who was seen twice last season in French roles and in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet the season before that. Mephistopheles is perhaps both the singer’s most prominent role and best performance yet at Lyric. Indeed, his rich bass-baritone reaches new depths. Soprano Ailyn Pérez plays Marguerite with demure innocence and charm in a role that slowly builds in passion and intensity to a breathtaking climax.

Lyric’s new production of Faust skews slightly too cerebral, leaving audiences scratching their heads in an effort to make sense of its unusual design and subtle direction. They’re not immediately intelligible and likeable in the way that Gounod’s music is. Those seeking a less thoughtful take on a more attractive figure should stay tuned for Jesus Christ Superstar, which opens on April 27.

photos by Cory Weaver and Andrew Cioffi

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on March 16, 2018
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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