An Old Bargain Yields New Vocal And Visual Riches

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John Frame’s eye-popping imagery figures in ‘Faust’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago, directed by Kevin Newbury. Benjamin Bernheim (center) stars in the title role, with Ailyn Pérez and Christian Van Horn. (Photos by Cory Weaver/Lyric Opera)
By Lawrence B. Johnson

CHICAGO – Eye-popping imagery, vivid theatrical imagination, and a French tenor’s stunning American debut converged in a magical new production of Gounod’s Faust that opened March 3 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Tenor Benjamin Bernheim stopped the show with his ringing delivery of Faust’s big aria “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” – a pause that provided a delicious extra moment to take in the seemingly endless wit and whimsy of designer John Frame’s surreal set.

Tenor Benjamin Bernheim is Faust as a world-weary artist in his object-strewn atelier.

The idea – I’m loath to invoke that freighted word “concept” – at the root of this new Faust, contrived by Frame and director Kevin Newbury, is that the world-weary old man at the heart of Goethe’s tale is no longer a philosopher but rather an artist. Hence, we find Faust in a studio piled and strewn with fantastical objects and images, large and small, none of which hold any further charm for him. Philosopher or artist, it is the same recognizable man overcome by age and ennui.

What is different, what is new to any American stage, is the singer who all alone must sustain that long first scene, elicit our compassion, and draw us into Faust’s wondrous renewal – and his reckless, narcissistic destruction of an innocent and good woman. Bernheim, whose current season also includes debuts at the Vienna State Opera and London’s Royal Opera House, brought the listener instantly into hand not only with clear, expressive singing but also with the physical truth of a frail soul who can’t bear the intrusive sounds of vital youth from the street below.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, as Méphistophélès, has four ever-present minions.

When the despairing Faust invokes Satan – voilà! – he gets bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, a tall, handsome, rakish Méphistophélès, bedecked in an orange-and-black plaid suit. And in potent voice. The wily devil is attended by four acolytes, facilitators who in their fabulous aspect and acrobatic grace distinguish this production as surely as any other single feature.

Each of these four silent, troll-like figures wears an oversized head, each different from the others. They are expressions of Méphistophélès’ will, invisible to human characters even as they physically interact, prod, and steer them. These demonic assistants are freakish but not terrifying; they just do what they do, quite beautifully, though impassively, as if enslaved for all time and beyond either resistance or regret.

No less imaginative, or fascinating, are the myriad projections that illustrate and accentuate the narrative. A troop of soldiers, bound for the battle front, is accompanied by cavorting skeletons on adjacent screens; around Marguerite’s playhouse-size abode, splendorous flowers spring up, variegated and huge.

Marguerite (soprano Ailyn Pérez) with Faust in their brief ecstasy.

It was there that Bernheim’s Faust, now dressed in fine blue plaid attire after Mephisto’s own fashion, paused at the sight of Marguerite’s humble dwelling and sang his paean to “the richness in this poverty.” Bernheim floated the aria on a voice of effortless legato and firm body, silvery, at once poetic and heroic, taking the late high C in easy stride. Not only did the crowd go wild, but maestro Emmanuel Villaume, Bernheim’s countryman, also joined in the salute, hands extended above his head as he applauded vigorously from the pit. Even when Villaume turned back to the band to resume, the continuing din obliged him to wave the musicians off for another extended moment.

The theatrical savvy and vocal brilliance of Bernheim and Van Horn found their match in soprano Ailyn Pérez’s winsome, anxious, and ultimately delirious Marguerite. The fair maid’s long slide into disillusionment is one of the glories of vocal portraiture on the opera stage, and Pérez made eloquent, affecting work of it. Her effervescent turn through Marguerite’s “jewel” aria, “Ah, je ris de me voir,” upon discovering the casket of treasures Faust/Méphistophélès left at her doorstep, exuded a fountain of delight. Pérez’s singing was agile, bright, and elegantly contoured.

Between Villaume’s stylish, dramatically attuned conducting and Newbury’s novel stagecraft, this Faust – a joint venture between the Lyric Opera and Portland Opera – moved swiftly and purposefully. And the vocal wealth on display ranged wide and deep.

Siébel (mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen) vows to help Valentin (baritone Edward Parks).

Baritone Edward Parks made a stalwart and credible Valentin, battle-hardened soldier and brother to the ill-used Marguerite. Parks brought great poignancy to Valentin’s noble aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux,” in which, in departure, he commends Marguerite to God’s protection. And when Valentin returned only to find his sister ruined, Parks brought to his confrontation with Faust a rage you could almost touch. This was opera as authentic theater.

As the lovesick adolescent Siébel, who moons over Marguerite but also falls victim to Mephisto’s machinations, mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen sang with equal parts of technical finesse and emotional vulnerability.

The Lyric Opera’s ever-reliable chorus became fully engaged soldiers and citizens, vocally robust and dramatically aware. It’s commonplace these days for directors to depict the returning soldiers in Faust as battered and bloodied, a graphic statement of war’s horror. But Newbury doubles down on that trope, having the bedraggled, tightly grouped soldiers turn to face the audience as if for a portrait of their destruction. And even in their broken posture, they suffer further injury as Méphistophélès strides about them, slashing with his deathly steel.

Méphistophélès had his victim – old, empty, searching Faust – at hello.

Ah, Méphistophélès, the grim winner who takes all, or nearly so. Van Horn’s wry devil, grand of voice and urbane of manner, is a dark delight in his swings from patiently manipulative to petulant and impulsive. Perhaps he didn’t succeed in adding Marguerite to the roster of the damned, but of course he had Faust at hello. And in this version, it’s a long goodbye: Faust, once more old and empty, and with a reconfigured face, shuffles off behind Mephisto’s four minions, now become a quintet.

The show continues on various dates through Mar. 21.

Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.