It’s high-tech versus low-tech in razzle-dazzle staging of ‘Faust’ at Lyric

03.04.18
Emmanuel Villaume
Chicago Sun-Times

Few legends have proven more enduringly alluring than Faust’s deal with the devil, a story of deceit, betrayal and basic human weakness that is compellingly retold in Charles Gounod’s deservedly celebrated 1859 opera.

Overshadowing everything in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new take on this old tale is a production design (a collaboration with Portland Opera) that springs from the obviously fertile mind of nationally known sculptor and filmmaker John Frame.

Lyric Opera deserves credit for going outside the conventional stable of opera designers for a startlingly fresh vision and for attempting to plug into the high-tech, visual cacophony that has come to define 21st-century life.

The problem is that the 3½-hour production’s barrage of elaborate and arguably overblown sets, costumes and projections become a distraction and at times even overwhelm what is at its heart a very simple if desperately tragic story.

In this conception, Frame’s artistry is essentially a stand-in for Faust’s, and Frame/Faust’s artistic world of puppet-like sculptures, silhouette animation, still photography and stop-animation films becomes the make-believe scenic realm in which all the action takes place.


These elements, along with the imaginative costumes, especially Méphistophélès’ ensemble, a delightfully outrageous orange-and-black patterned suit with red shoes, are based on Frame’s ideas and realized by designer Vita Tzykun.

Offsetting those elements, which are drawn from the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, are David Adam Moore’s very 21st-century projections, which animate some of those older visuals as only today’s technology can, and add a high-resolution image of a forest as a vast backdrop and other color images.

What results is a collision of old and new, high-tech and low-tech, fantastic and real, that is extremely inventive and highly relevant to the way we perceive the world today and process information. But, as has been suggested, it can at times all become a bit too much.

Some of the projections vividly enliven the action, such as Frame’s stop-action animated film of skeletal figures scampering around the stage in Act Two, as Méphistophélès sings of the golden idol and devil’s dance. But at other times, the projections echo the action on stage and just seem redundant.

At the same time, it’s often hard to sort out the symbolism that is obviously implied in much of the scenery. A key set piece is a large puppet-like figure, apparently a kind of doppelganger for Faust, with a long, telescopic device projecting from its face. It is visible in every scene but what is its significance?
 
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