Splendid cast gives Gounod his due in muddled 'Faust' at Lyric Opera

Emmanuel Villaume
Chicago Tribune

Stage director Kevin Newbury has devised a Faustian bargain of his own for the new production of Gounod’s “Faust” that is closing Lyric Opera’s mainstage season at the Lyric Opera House.

His cinematic staging, while sometimes theatrically arresting and filled with intriguingly weird imagery, often goes against the grain of this melodious French Romantic warhorse. At the first performance on Saturday night, one found more to admire in the musical performance than in the muddled dramatic conception.

The title character is usually depicted as a burned-out old philosopher who strikes a pact with the Devil so he can be transformed into a young man and experience the worldly pleasures that eluded him in his long and fruitless search for knowledge.

The Faust as depicted here is an artist struggling to find the meaning of life through his creations. These spring to life through jerky stop-motion animated projections and surreal set pieces taken from, or inspired by, sculptures and film images of the noted American visual artist John Frame, the show’s production designer. Newbury’s creative team includes Vita Tzykun (who created the semi-stylized set and colorful period costumes), David Adam Moore (who devised the surreal projections) and Duane Schuler (who supplied the gloomy lighting).
Too bad the concept comes to naught by the end, as the busy designs decorate the story more than they illuminate it. The famed soldiers chorus, for example, is played for irony, with grinning animated skeletons dancing across screens framing a zombie-like parade of the walking dead, in direct contradiction of what Gounod’s triumphant music is telling us.

What saves this “Faust” from conceptual perdition are the superior performances of Lyric’s admirable international cast under conductor Emmanuel Villaume, a master of Gallic style who has Lyric’s orchestra and chorus glorying in Gounod’s great score. The show brings a sensational American debut, that of the splendid young French lyric tenor Benjamin Bernheim in the title role. Completing a strong trio of principal singers are soprano Ailyn Perez as the heroine Marguerite and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as their infernal nemesis, Mephistopheles.

We see the aged, suicidal Faust literally carving the Devil out of a wooden block and animating this grand seigneur of evil. Treating Mephistopheles as Faust’s alter ego, while hardly original with stage directors, has possibilities that go unrealized here. Once Faust has signed away his soul and regained his youth, he sees a vision of the lovely young Marguerite. His pursuit of her comes across as little more than a scientific experiment: The bewildered hero stumbles about as if he can’t quite believe anything, or anyone, is real. And maybe they’re not.

Marguerite, pointlessly rendered as physically disabled, aborts her baby in church and is deprived of her heavenly apotheosis. The final scene leaves her in the lurch as her house goes up in flames and Faust dons a devil’s mask before trudging off to hell along with Satan and his four mini-devil henchmen. These scampering imps are a distracting intrusion that shifts one’s attention away from the singers at crucial moments in the drama.
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