The devil made me do it: Gounod’s “Faust”

Benjamin Bernheim (with the four assistant devils) stars in the title role of “Faust” at Lyric Opera. – Cory Weaver

Classical Music Critic

What: “Faust”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Mar. 21

You might think that a story of man selling his soul to the devil could not make for an opera with ravishingly beautiful music, but you’d be wrong. Gounod’s “Faust” is just such a work of art, based on Goethe’s tragic play.

Lyric Opera of Chicago has assembled a trio of first-rate singers to take on the principal roles, and they do not disappoint. Lyric made the brilliant move of engaging Benjamin Bernheim for his American debut. The French tenor was riveting as the title character on Saturday, opening night of the seven-performance run.

Bernheim sings Faust with engaging excitement and big-voiced bravura. His phrasing is expansive and alluring and he exudes passion in “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” (“I greet you, home chaste and pure”). The last note was not yet finished before the audience rewarded him with lengthy, enthusiastic, well-deserved applause.

Ryan Center alum Christian Van Horn is a savvy Méphistophèlés. Even in his goofy orange and black plaid suit and bright red shoes he creates a believable devil: sophisticated when he insinuates and charming when he mocks. Van Horn sings with authority and force and knows when to inflect his voice with menace and when to add a touch of humor.

Chicago area native Ailyn Pérez is a pretty-voiced Marguerite, the woman Faust woos, beds, and abandons. Her singing is attractive throughout, but notably underpowered for the first three acts. She comes alive in Acts IV and V, with graceful and vibrant sound.

Edward Parks is powerful as Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, while Annie Rosen is a winning and caring Siébel. Jill Grove as Marthe and Emmett O’Hanlon as Wagner acquit themselves well.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume leads the orchestra in a performance of elegance and vitality. The sound from the pit is vibrant and idiomatic, full of warm lyricism. The Lyric Opera Chorus contributes luscious singing.

The new production relies on a team who has put together an unusual theatrical display. Kevin Newbury (director), John Frame (production designer), Vita Tzykun (set and costume designer), David Adam Moore (projection designer) and Duane Schuler (lighting designer) began with the idea that they would center the production on the work of Frame, a sculptor, photographer, and filmmaker. Frame has never worked in opera (or theater) before so it’s disappointing that his teammates didn’t give him more guidance or exert greater control. Some of the Frame frame works very well, and there is much to like in his intriguing work, but it has been allowed to overwhelm the stage and the action, diminishing the coherence and power of the opera.

Frame’s artwork is powerful in creating a compelling, otherworldly set. It is esoteric and eccentric and sets the mood for Faust’s strange and unsettling odyssey.

The most important elements created by Frame are four jumbo heads worn by silent actors. They are flunkies of Méphistophèlés who are nearly always on stage working on behalf of the leader of the unfree underworld. At the best of times, these creepy dudes help to establish the power of their boss. But their near omnipresence becomes exhausting and utterly distracting. By the end you come to think that the piece might just has well have been renamed “The Devil’s Disciples.”

The attention paid to the devil heads has resulted in far less attention paid to anything else. Many scenes find the principals in boring, static positions. In Act IV, when Marguerite despairs in a church and Méphistophèlés eggs her on, they ridiculously and unbelievably sit close together on a bench. The stars of the scene are projections of Frame’s artwork on the church walls. The tragic anguish is minimized in favor of The Big Concept.

Newbury makes many of his own mistakes. Marguerite uses a crutch which suddenly becomes unnecessary whenever some intervention of the devil has taken place, for example when she discovers the jewels he has left for her. Does Newbury really think his audience is so dense that they need this crutch to realize something is afoot?

The scene where Méphistophèlés lures Marguerite’s neighbor away so Marguerite and Faust can be alone is famously funny. But the only laughs opening night came when the audience read the supertitles. Newbury’s direction was pedestrian and lacking in humor.

Newbury apparently doesn’t believe that Marguerite kills her own child. Instead, Méphistophèlés delivers the baby and ushers it away. This strange diabolis ex machina deprives Marguerite of her agency as a person, reducing the importance of her ultimate salvation. Why?

In Act II some women of the chorus try to tempt Faust, but the weird poses they affect are awkward and at this point they briefly go out of sync with the orchestra. This sort of error is exceedingly rare with the chorus and one is left to wonder if the odd attempt at using vogue posing was added at the last minute to try and improve the static staging.

Some elements are mysterious but don’t overwhelm the action. A statue of a puppet-like figure peering through lenses is often on stage. Is this God, watching all that happens? Is it Faust’s conscience? Does it represent the unerring eye of truth?

Occasionally the symbolism is clear. Marguerite’s house is shown several times, with each successive appearance smaller than the one before, establishing that her pure and chaste home has regressed into the distance of her memory, never to be reclaimed.

While many of the projected videos are confusing and clutter the stage, at times they create added meaning. In Act I, Faust is drawn to a projection of a woman walking away from him and tells the devil he wants her. At the very end of the opera, Marguerite walks away (to heaven), recreating the early visual. The action before this point shows that Faust has created all that has happened, but this looping of Marguerite’s walking away shows that Faust (wittingly or unwittingly) actual chose it. It’s a powerful point.