Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust stands as one of humanity’s grandest morality tales—at what price can we regain youth as we reach the end of our time on earth? In the depths of despair, Goethe’s disillusioned scholar is willing to sell his soul to the devil, who promises in return all the pleasures of restored yesteryear, especially the passion and romance that inevitably fade with time and experience. The story, which dates in various forms from a Renaissance legend, recommends itself to the eccentricities of opera. The French composer Charles Gounod carried the idea on his creative conscience for nearly twenty years before an impresario commissioned him to compose such a work for Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique. Of all the composers who tried (Hector Berlioz, Arrigo Boito, and Ferruccio Busoni, among others, all wrote Faust operas; Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wagner, and Mussorgsky composed music on the Faust theme in other genres), Gounod came closest to realizing Goethe’s inspiration in music. Indeed, Gounod’s Faust was the first opera staged by the Metropolitan Opera, and from the time of its Parisian premiere in 1859 the work has remained firmly in the standard repertoire all over the world. But even Gounod’s superlative version, staged in a new production by the Lyric Opera of Chicago this season, never quite succeeded in capturing the literary work’s philosophical profundities.
As in most Faust adaptations, Gounod’s opera delivers selected scenes, here dramatized for maximum effect over five sprawling acts. The forty-year-old director Kevin Newbury notes that he is not quite at an age to mourn his youth, but he nonetheless assembled a clever production team to enliven Gounod’s opera with an imaginative approach. Its major inspiration is the rough-hewn wooden sculptures of the Californian artist John Frame, which seek to capture the human form in an expressionist idiom. Here Faust is not the stale academician of tradition or the disaffected scientist we increasingly see (the Met’s current repertory production posits our anti-hero as the inventor of the atomic bomb), but rather an artist, whose exhaustion results from the futile musings of his creative mind. He summons Mephistopheles in a last gasp of artistic purpose by carving his figure from a block of wood. The powerful suggestion is that the devil and his temptations might be products of our own minds rather than malevolent entities prowling the earth to tempt and seduce.
Frame’s sculptures tend to look appositely dour, but Newbury’s team enlivens his set designs with flashes of color and movement. Sometimes the effect is a bit garish. The Costume designer Vita Tzykun might have thought better than to dress both Mephistopheles and the rejuvenated Faust in pastel plaids. But David Adam Moore’s projection designs make inspired use of film, photography, and stop-motion animation to engage the audience in the action. A baritone by musical training (with two Lyric Opera stage credits on his resume), he synthesizes stage action with tremendously engaging optics. Most effectively, the Act III seduction scene opens with projected flowers blooming and ends with Faust and Marguerite swirling in multidimensional hellfire as they reach their tender embraces. Likewise, when the infernal flame returns to consume the defeated Faust at the opera’s finale, he does not descend into the abyss, but is rather compelled to join Mephistopheles’s band of masked servants, who have done his evil bidding throughout the opera and dutifully march off to help him despoil new victims.
Strong casts can help any production concept come alive, and Lyric assembled a fine ensemble of exciting young singers. The French tenor Benjamin Bernheim lived up to the vaunted lyrical tradition of sensitive, effective Fausts most recently remembered in Roberto Alagna’s performances of what is arguably his best role. Visceral ardor accompanied an almost gymnastically elegant delivery of the combination of despair and sensitivity that has turned Faust’s name into an English-language adjective. The ascents had an occasional pinched quality, but this young singer’s North American debut production marks a career to watch. Likewise, the bass-baritone Christian Van Horn reached back into the finest traditions of Mephistopheles to summon an arch and beguiling devil, one whose power and presence showed no sign of faltering even as his victims collapsed in ruin. Rollicking basso cantante sonorities delivered the best lines with diabolical turns of wit, charm, and irony. The innocent Marguerite coalesced in the limpid, lithe tones of the young soprano Ailyn Perez, in her first staged production with Lyric. Delicate warmth characterized the portrayal, which was helped by costuming her not merely as a simple maiden, but as a disabled one, moving about the stage on a crutch. The metaphor of vulnerability handily matched raw innocence and balanced well with the character’s refined simplicity. Edward Parks’s Valentin was rather forgettable. Jill Grove’s Martha and Annie Rosen’s Siébel were fine studies in character performance.
Emmanuel Villaume conducted a stirring performance, losing none of the work’s emotive lyricism. There were moments, particularly in the Act III seduction scene, when he lingered a bit ponderously over the orchestral passages, but he sped things along alluringly when the deed was done. Productions like this one certainly mark Chicago’s vaunted company as a leader in twenty-first-century opera. Ambitious programming (including a full Ring Cycle currently underway) will continue, as will updates to its storied theater, which in 2017 was appropriately renamed the Lyric Opera House. Among its delights are the Pedersen Room, an elegant dining venue that fits seamlessly with the building’s art deco milieu. Open exclusively to Lyric ticket holders, it boasts a superb menu and wine list for pre-performance and/or intermission dining. For Faust, one could even find a veal selection to honor Mephistopheles’s expository aria “Le veau d’or,” a self-referential meditation on the Biblical Golden Calf.