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Performances

Benjamin Bernheim [Photo © Cory Weaver]
30 Mar 2018

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s innovative, new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust succeeds on multiple levels of musical and dramatic representation. The title role is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, his companion in adventure Méphistophélès is performed by Christian Van Horn.

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Benjamin Bernheim [Photo © Cory Weaver]

 

The role of Marguerite is sung by Aylin Pérez and that of her brother Valentin by Edward Parks. Siébel is performed by Annie Rosen, Marthe by Jill Grove, and Wagner is Emmett O’Hanlon. The performances are conducted by Emmanuel Villaume and the Lyric Opera Chorus is prepared by its Chorus Master Michael Black. This new production of Faust is designed by John Frame and directed by Kevin Newbury. Sets and costumes are designed by Vita Tzykun, projected imagery is designed by David Adam Moore, lighting by Duane Schuler, and wigs and makeup by Sarah Hatten.

The predominantly dark stage in the opening scene depicts a workroom or studio, interior windows are covered with drapes while ladders are placed near these channels to the exterior world. A small screen shows a video projection. As light begins to pervade the studio, a scrim rises, and attention is focused on the doddering movements of an elderly man. His resigned words beginning with “Rien” (“Nothing”) express dissatisfaction with an oppressive existence. Mr. Bernheims’ monologue continues with an impassioned statement on the vanity of Faust’s efforts until now. While applying a constant volume in vocal projection, Bernheim colors distinctly individual words, “Salut” and “destin,” by which Faust “greets” his purported final day when he plans to take poison and master his “destiny.” In response to Faust’s doubt in God’s help and his repeated curses, Bernheim’s final evocation forte to “Satan! à moi!” brings Méphistophélès out from behind a draped window. Mr. Van Horn’s entrance establishes this Satan as a master of all situations: his cool control and unyielding intrusion into the dramatic progression make him here a force that cannot be shut off. From the start, Van Horn’s supple voice lends even greater credibility to his characterization of the demonic force in nature. His performance throughout shows a remarkable command and ability to adapt his voice to varying dramatic needs. Van Horn’s emphasis here on “puissance” (“power”) is countered by Bernheim’s insistence on “la jeunesse” (“youth”) as a goal. Two innovations of this productions support the dramatic flow at this point and again in subsequent acts. The video projection of a woman moving through a natural setting captures Faust’s thoughts and desires of the moment. Once he commits his signature guaranteeing future service to Méphistophélès, Faust drinks the potion of youth and is transformed by a band of masked minions who appear henceforth in this production at strategic moments to carry out the devil’s bidding. “En route” (“Let us away”) is taken as a journey of discovery for Faust with Méphistophélès leading the path immediately into the public space and tavern starting in Act Two.

The drinking song is performed by a chorus dressed now in nineteenth-century garb; gradually soldiers wearing French uniforms from the time of Gounod drift onto the scene. At the entrance of Valentin attention is focused on the supervision of Marguerite during the brother’s forthcoming military absence. Mr. Parks performs the signature aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux” (“Before departing thee lands”) with a soldierly tone, while expressing lyrical warmth primarily in the middle section of the piece. His confrontation with Méphistophélès is facilitated by the masked assistants pushing stage center the table onto which the devil climbs to sing “Le veau d’or” (“The calf of gold”). Van Horn’s crisp intonation of the melodic line and his exciting delivery of the final verse, “Et Satan conduit le bal” (“And Satan leads the ball”) characterizes the unflagging power of this demonic force. During this first, extended scene of the act Faust lurks about and wanders among the citizens, students, and soldiers assembled, as though reinforcing Mr. Newbury’s program comments that “the whole story is in Faust’s imagination.” Once he reenters vocally in keeping with Gounod’s score, the protagonist persists in reminding Méphistophélès of his promise. As the crowd separates, Marguerite appears here in a solitary, seated pose. Ms. Pérez rebuffs Faust’s offer “pour faire le chemin” (“to escort you on your way”) with understated yet thoughtfully intoned lines. Once she is spirited away with the intercession of the minions, Bernheim declares fortissimo his affection for Marguerite. A stylized, projected image of Faust appears on the stage rear wall at the close.

Such emphasis on demonic control continues into the central Act Three. Through a scrim, village trees are gradually visible during the entr’acte as well as Van Horn’s Méphistophélès posed in contemplation with a lit cigarette. In delivering Siébel’s couplets of a lovelorn suitor’s devotion Ms. Rosen pours out cascades of sincere emotion while addressing the flowers to be left for Marguerite. Rosen’s attention to key lines and application of rubato communicate her character’s pivotal attempts to shield the heroine with innocent love. The final “doux baiser” (“tender kiss”) which Siébel hopes to send via the flowers is held by Rosen with an achingly extended pitch. Faust’s approach to Marguerite’s dwelling is, likewise, accompanied by his cavatina praising nature for its formation of Marguerite. Bernheim’s slightly nasal, reedy voice caresses the individual lines as he credits “Nature” for having developed this ideal. The repetition of “Salut” and Bernheim’s panegyric to Marguerite’s beauty is accomplished with seamless legato and shifts in color to indicate emotional intensity. During and after the iconic aria this production’s external visualization of a character’s feelings is displayed to good effect just as an image of large, colorful lilies is projected onto the stage, while Bernheim concludes with a sustained note Faust’s outpouring of devotion. Almost immediately the Satanic helpers bring a box of jewels and place it at a strategic locale near Marguerite’s dwelling. This cottage appears raised on stilts so that the helpers can crawl beneath the house and indicate their watchful temptation. In her performance of the “Roi de Thulé” Pérez sings with an introspective, wistful tone to capture the king’s fond memory of his departed wife. Her exquisite piano phrasing at the close forms a transition to the startled reaction of finding the box. Pérez begins the “Jewel Song” indeed softly with enthusiasm and vocal decoration building after she tries on a pair of earrings. This curiosity increases as one of Satan’s helpers emerges to hold up a mirror and thereby tempt Marguerite even further. The following quartet of Marthe and Méphistophélès, Marguerite and Faust is cleverly staged, so that the interests of both couples remain constant while they continue to perform from different focal points. Ms. Grove shines in the cameo tole of Marthe with both her singing and acting contributing comic relief and a motivation to further the plot. Yet the ultimate prod is here Méphistophélès, at whose urging Faust is now pushed by the minions into the arms of Marguerite.

The scenes of progressive emotional starkness in the remaining parts of the opera present Marguerite first with a callous Faust, then alone, and next as a penitent in church. In this latter scene the lighting on the stage rear suggests a religious interior when Marguerite sits on a bench. Positioned next to her, and clearly plaguing her conscience as symbol, Méphistophélès’s ringing statements accelerate as the orchestral volume swells. At the same time the lighting through a mock window now resembles the flames of hell. The chilling determination unleashed by Van Horn’s performance in this scene in church epitomizes the dramatic power communicated by this superb singer and actor. His facial expression etches a relentless force which dominates through to the inevitable conclusion. Marguerite’s faith will save her as declared, but Faust must pay for his transgressions. As an ironic reminder in the final scene of the opera in this production, Faust dons one of the sculpted masks to follow the others as henceforth one of the band of Méphistophélès.

Salvatore Calomino

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