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Lyric Opera of Chicago

In Review Chicago Faust lg 618
Christian Van Horn as Méphistophélès in Chicago
© Cory Weaver

GOUNOD'S FAUST  returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago on March 3, in an edgy new production that was visually spectacular but theatrically unsatisfying. Director Kevin Newbury, building on the success of his multimedia realization of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at Santa Fe, was here inspired by the work of celebrated sculptor and videographer John Frame. Designers David Adam Moore (projections) and Vita Tzykun (sets and costumes) created an astonishing environment in which Frame’s imagery liquidly morphed from gracefully swaying flowers in Marguerite’s garden to frightening skeletons as Méphistophélès wielded infernal power.

Act I began promisingly. Faust, reimagined as a visual artist, conjured up the devil by carving him from a block of wood. Méphistophélès was attended by a quartet of minions who sported eerie masks inspired by Frame’s creations. The trouble began with a curiously static Kermesse scene, which found the chorus unimaginatively grouped in lines while these devilish minions provided most of the stage action. The four little creeps subsequently handed Marguerite her jewels, carted away Valentin’s corpse and otherwise dominated the staging throughout the evening. This device quickly became an annoyance and resulted in a serious lack of narrative focus. Despite the scenic eye candy, interlude after interlude fell dead as the singers stood about inertly while these operatic beastie boys manipulated an endless stream of extraneous props around them. “O nuit d’amour,” one of the most emblematic of French duets, was hopelessly dwarfed by this treatment. By the denouement, in which the doomed Faust joined the minions’ ranks (a nifty idea, which would have worked had their presence been tempered elsewhere), we just wanted them to go back to hell and let the people sing. 

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume skillfully rendered the score’s luxuriant amalgam of perfume and climactic thrust. Villaume’s Kermesse scene waltzed away enchantingly, even if nobody onstage did. The most complete individual performance was that of Christian Van Horn, as Méphistophélès. The cavernous, black sound associated with the role is not quite his to command, but Van Horn’s devil oozed malevolent charm and was graced with plush-velvet timbral beauty. It also didn’t hurt that the tall, handsome bass looked like a singing Vincent Price. French tenor Benjamin Bernheim wielded a creamy lyric instrument with a ringing upper register in his American debut as Faust. As Marguerite, Ailyn Pérez initially seemed tentative (understandably, as the character was presented as physically disabled), but her warm lyric soprano soon opened up for a delectable performance.

Edward Parks made a welcome Lyric debut with his beautifully vocalized Valentin. Annie Rosen was a pert Siébel who soared above the staff with ease. Jill Grove’s Marthe was given nothing to do in the garden scene, but her pungent mezzo made for luxury casting. Emmett O’Hanlon contributed a delightful Wagner. 

There was healthy applause at the curtain calls, and scattered “boos” for the production team. The ironywas that something crafted with such obvious creativity could emerge so lifeless. Lyric’s Faust would have played better had more attention been given to the characters in the libretto.  —Mark Thomas Ketterson 

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