Faust: Frame’s Unique Concepts Combine With Glorious Singing From Ailyn Pérez & Ben Bernheim

Emmanuel Villaume
Opera Wire

There was much anticipation Saturday night for the opening of “Faust” at Lyric Opera of Chicago in a new co-production with the Portland Opera. It’s certain that Gounod’s tale of the title character making a deal with the devil has never been told this way.

There’s probably a clear dividing line on this production. If you prefer a grand opera like “Faust” to be grand in terms of tradition and that sort of thing, then this probably wasn’t for you. If you are open to a more modern staging such as what you may get overseas, then this was a visual feast for the ages and shouldn’t be dismissed as regie-theater.

Frame’s Debut

The headliner for this “Faust” was famed artist John Frame, well-known for his production design. Frame, working in opera for the first time, is known as a sculptor of found objects – or more accurately for a French opera, “objet trouvé.” The human figurines and/or puppets that he has built his reputation on are present throughout this rendering in numerous forms.

Frame’s artwork was combined with some fancy stop-motion animation that was under the auspices of projection designer David Adam Moore. It’s all evident right from the opening act in Faust’s workshop in which tenor Benjamin Bernheim’s title character is seen creating a devil-like figure. There’s a screen with projected images on the left side, an ominous bedsheet on the right serving as a screen with a mad scientist-like feel to this aging artist’s studio.

When Méphistophélès appears in a garish orange checkered suit through the large sheet and an image of Marguerite is projected on the large screen to the left, Faust opts for eternal youth. This Faust is transformed from an old man in a shabby raincoat into a younger man in an aqua blue suit and the game is now afoot.

More Visual Highlights

The costumes by designer Vita Tzykun brought the color to this concept and that was especially the case in Act two in the tavern with the townspeople dressed in various hues. It’s in contrast to the darkness that the set is bathed in, with four projection screens placed about in this setting.

Really, it’s impossible to discuss this production without explaining in some detail what each scene looked like. Marguerite’s garden in Act three features a stilt house in which four fiends of Méphistophélès reside underneath. These fiends wearing costumes depicting figures of Frame are omnipresent and serve as a reminder of the horrible set of circumstances the protagonist has created for himself.

Also notable was the church scene in Act four in which Marguerite tries to pray but is rudely interrupted by none other than Méphistophélès. It’s a barren, empty church except for projections of skeletons and crosses that yet again underline the predicament. The surroundings are uniquely hellish in the world put forth by director Kevin Newbury based on the ideas of Frame and Tzykun.

And the Music…

While even more can be said about the sights, this is, of course, a work by Gounod that features some of the best music in all of opera. That was clear on opening night under the baton of Emmanuel Villaume, who seemed to intuitively know what tempo to keep the proceedings at. He was doubly important in this performance with no prompter being used, causing some impressive adjustments on the fly by the maestro and the principals.

The Lyric orchestra was a resounding success throughout and, in continuing a theme for this season, Michael Black’s chorus elevated itself to new heights. The Act 2 “Vin ou biere” was sung with gusto and the Soldier’s chorus in Act three was absolutely magnificent.
Read the rest of the review here