By Jane Recker
The tale of Faust, the German philosopher who sells his soul to the devil to regain his youth, has been part of the Western canon since the 16th century. Though the tale pre-dates the 19th century Gounod operatic setting by 300 years, its universal themes of good and evil still translate to the modern era, especially with Kevin Newbury’s bold direction and John Frame’s innovative production design. Overall they create a forward-thinking yet timeless interpretation of the operatic classic.
Faust opens with the titular character lamenting how he’s squandered his life away over his studies and inventions, debating whether to take his life with poison. He summons the devil in the form of Méphistophélès and strikes a bargain: Faust will regain his youth if he gives Satan his eternal soul. With his strengthened body and newfound joie de vivre, Faust seduces the innocent village girl, Marguerite, impregnates her and abandons her. Marguerite is jailed and sentenced to hang for murdering her bastard child, but prays to god for forgiveness and is saved by angels. Faust, on the other hand, is condemned to Hell, forced to serve Satan for all eternity.
Benjamin Bernheim dazzles as Faust in his American debut. His tenor cuts through the orchestra with a gentle roundedness, and his high notes are stunning; there’s a controlled precariousness to every C he hits that has the audience holding their breath. Impressively, his acting chops live up to his pipes. He’s able to convincingly play Faust as an old man at the beginning of the show, then by Act III have the entire audience rooting for him to win the affections of Marguerite after watching his tender and sweet seduction.
The role of Marguerite is a difficult one to play well for a modern audience, but Ailyn Pérez is up to the task. While she maintains Marguerite as an innocent character who falls from grace, everything comes from a genuine place. She is never too saccharine with her love or too forced with her character’s later misery, rather, she simply plays the role of a charming young girl screwed over by her first love. Her creamy, sweet soprano is up to the challenges of the role: She’s spectacular in the light, floating Jewel Song, and is able to vocally stand up to the quasi-Verdian final trio.
Perhaps the true star of the show was Christian Van Horn as Méphistophélès. Dressed as a 19th century dandy, he deftly navigates somewhere between the role of buffo and villain to create a snappily sinister character. His rich, resonant bass riles the entire crowd in the Golden Calf aria and strikes fear into the hearts of men when intimidating Marguerite in church. His Satan is so devilishly likeable the audience is almost rooting for him to win Faust’s eternal soul by the end of the show.
Unlike a Puccini or Verdi, Faust has never been a grand, glittering opera. Instead of calling for ornate sets, the show focuses on the scale of the battle onstage between good and evil. Newbury and Frame took this to heart in their staging and production design. Vita Tzykun’s set consists mainly of a background of heather panels, augmented by projections and lighting. A spindly, leafless forest as the backdrop seems whimsical at times, menacing at others.
Newbury says he likes to keep the staging simple, and for the most part this worked to the advantage of the action onstage. A notable moment of success: the love duet in Act III. The chemistry between Bernheim and Pérez is rarely seen on the opera stage and is allowed to shine due to the lack of any kind of distraction from the set or staging. The tension leading up to their first kiss has the audience on the edge of their seats, and the genuine passion following is so real it makes Faust’s ultimate betrayal even more heartbreaking.
However, there are some instances where this simplicity falls flat. Act V is so starkly staged it feels as though it was hastily blocked moments before curtain. Its lack of sense of location or action leaves the final act somewhat confusing even for audience members familiar with the plot.
There is also an aspect of whimsy in the design that’s equally effective and ineffective. Arguably the best execution of this is in Tzykun’s costume design. The collection of muted pastels and jewel tones against the heather background create a fairy tale world where it seems plausible the devil could visit for a day. David Adam Moore’s projections mostly help to advance the plot and amplify certain symbolism, but they occasionally serve only as distractions.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the show is the plethora of symbolism onstage at any given point. Ranging from a sky-searching giant wooden art dummy to a minuscule version of Marguerite’s house hanging in the air, there is an overabundance to think about after leaving the show. These symbols aren’t easily understood: this may prove an entrancing puzzle for some audience members, and an unnecessary annoyance for others.
While there is sometimes a lack of clarity in the world the production team has created for Faust, there is never a lack of emotion. The crack team of performers at the helm of the show expertly interprets the incomparable melodies of Gounod to create an emotional journey that will touch modern audiences as much as it did 150 years ago.
Lyric Opera presents “Faust” through March 21 at the Civic Opera House,v20 N Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.