The work of the sculptor John Frame (here serving as Production Designer) is the inspiration for Kevin Newbury’s new production of Gounod’s familiar Faust that opened Saturday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Here Faust is envisioned as an aging artist, and it is in his studio that the opera begins. Faust has created a sculpture of Mephistopheles, and it comes to life through the use of multi-media screens and projections. Once Mephistopheles arrives, we move through the opera as if seeing it inside Faust’s head.
The production is at all times visually arresting, but it’s also extremely distracting. It was as if Newbury and his designers felt the music and the story needed constant visual decoration to make the proper effect. Projected on the walls are dancing skeletons, oversized flowers, dying soldiers, even verbal commentary (during the returning soldiers’ chorus the question is posed in French as to what war achieves, the answer is projected in huge letters “RIEN”).
All these projections are brilliantly designed by David Adam Moore, but they are so interesting that one almost forgets that an opera is proceeding apace. In addition, Newbury has employed five actors who play “imps” that act out Mephistopheles’ orders. Again, they are visually remarkable with their large headpieces and bizarre movements (excellent work by Movement Director Zach Winokur) but they are constantly underfoot. They hang around throughout Marguerite’s “King of Thule” and “Jewel Song” scene, they hold “moonlights” above the singers during the love duet. At first, I found these imps appropriately devilish and creepy. By the end of Act Two I just wanted them to go away. They didn’t.
The most egregiously problematic decision made by the director was, inexplicably, to portray Marguerite as disabled, hobbling about with a single crutch. After her first entrance, I assumed that Ms. Perez had some sort of injury—and so did several audience members around me. I later learned that this was a choice made because a crutch is prominently used in some of Frame’s best-known sculptures. It did allow for a nice moment when Marguerite flung away the crutch during the Jewel Song and was able briefly to dance (helped by those ubiquitous imps). But it was a continuing distraction throughout.
Despite this constantly moving frame, the picture still managed to come to vivid life thanks to some really spectacular singing and playing. In his American debut, French tenor Benjamin Bernheim scored an enormous success. His meltingly beautiful lyric tenor poured forth golden tone, and he was a master of dynamics and vocal color. He also evinced some real power for his climatic moments, and sang throughout with Gallic elegance and graceful phrasing.
Matching him was the lovely soprano Ailyn Perez as Marguerite, moving from the delicacy of her first scene into a thoroughly delightful “Jewel Song” with colorful coquettishness, finally bursting with passion as she accepts Faust’s embrace. Ms. Perez sang with crystalline tone in both her coloratura and dramatic moments, and still had plenty of power for the famous trio at the end of the opera.
As an unusually elegant and engaging Mephistopheles, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn also sang with power and grace, managing to convey a chilling edge of real menace. Both his strong singing and his dancer-like movements skills contributed to a fine performance.
Edward Parks sang a passionate and gutsy Valentin, furious in his condemnation of Marguerite in his death scene. Annie Rosen was an innocent and puppyish Siebel, and she’s a fine singing actress I’d like to hear in larger roles. Mezzo Jill Grove was comic gold as Marthe.
The Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus sang and played with real distinction and precision, led by Emmanuel Villaume. I am of two minds about this Maestro, who mostly provides an exciting, propulsive reading of the score but here it’s marred by episodes of lagging tempi.
Vita Tzykun designed the set and the wonderfully colorful costumes, and Duane Schuler’s lighting was lush and sensual during the Garden scene, stark and cold around the final scene.
I love Gounod’s incredibly melodious score, and it was very well served by these excellent singers, chorus, and orchestra. Despite the overly busy production, this Faust is well worth a trip to Wacker Drive.