I am actually still processing everything I saw on stage at this opera. It’s actually one of those things so rich in detail and imagination that you’d most likely have to see it multiple times to get everything that went into it. Other than last year’s Les Troyens, this may be the best thing I’ve ever seen at The Lyric and I’ve seen some amazing productions here over the years. You simply must go. Every performance should be sold out.
This production is innovative in every way. Sculptor John Frame’s design (ably aided by Set and Costume Designer Vita Tzykun, Lighting Designer Duane Schuler and Projection Designer David Adam Moore) is both eerie and beautiful throughout and every second there’s something incredible to look at.
Rather than rely on the musty medieval setting of Faust, the Lyric puts it in a fantasy-driven version of pre-WWI France, at least according to the women’s dresses and the men’s Army Uniforms. But the stage and design are completely informed with modern technology and supremely creepy early days of electricity elements. Think Tesla’s lab with 100% more evil.
Faust’s workbench starts out with a flat screen television complete with flickering, out of focus and disturbing black and white images made to look like a retro, early days of technology experiment. This is just one of the projected elements that this production uses so amazingly well. The moveable walls of the set are also large screen canvases on which projections add to the mood of each scene. From the flames of hell, to the blooming flowers of love, to disturbing, ghostly images of death and everything in-between, the visual production design of this is innovative, disturbing and fascinating throughout. And it helps if you can read French.
There’s also the use of masks, automatons, and puppetry in a way that really reminded me of Tool’s extremely disturbing and effective “Sober” video from 1993. (It’s out on You Tube, so you can go look it up.) Trust me when I say that director Kevin Newbury and production designer John Frame amped up the creep factor in this to an amazing level and simultaneously turned it into something supremely beautiful.
It’s aided by Gounod’s glorious score, superbly performed by the Lyric’s Orchestra, led by Emmanuel Villaume. Even when no one is singing, you’re being given amazing things to look at backed by fabulous music.
As usual, The Lyric has hired superb singers to fill the roles. Benjamin Bernheim, making his American debut as Faust, is no exception here. His voice soars on every note and he is an absolute pleasure to listen to. However, as the rest of the acting performances are so very strong and, in some cases, mesmerizing, this production has a Faust utterly dependent on Mephistopheles to get anything done. He’s granted his youth, but no charisma. However, it works because it is this production. Elsewhere, he’d probably seem really overpowered and lost despite his fabulous voice.
There is not enough good one can possibly say about Christian Van Horn as Mephistopheles. It is entirely his show. It should be called Mephistopheles instead of Faust. The second he hits the stage in his amazing flame-colored suit and impeccably streaked hair, he dominates everything. He’s an absolute pro but has such presence that he actually pulls focus from the other singers just by standing still. In fact, some of the times he’s standing still he’s so menacing that it absolutely adds incredibly to the performance. His scene in church with Marguerite in Act IV, Scene II is utterly amazing in this way and he hardly moves. Honestly, he needs to be cast in all the things.
He is accompanied by four, non-speaking actors in massive masks from various eras of puppetry, there’s an obvious devil, someone who looks much like Punch from the old Punch and Judy shows, and a couple of other familiar faces. Again, they are so amazing in everything they do and so effective, they mostly steal focus from the main characters even as they’re moving props, or acting as props, or being part of the secondary lighting design. It’s just astonishing, you have to see them to believe it, but they got as many cheers from the audience as any of the singers at the end and for good reason. There are four of them on stage and five listed in the program. I’m not sure who we saw, but they are Jon Beal, Jack DeCesare, Richard Manera, Michael Turrentine and Kai Young.
Edward Parks is also an absolutely outstanding Valentin. He has fantastic presence, sings beautifully and acts his butt off. You really care about him, even when he’s being awful and rigid and cursing his sister.
Ailyn Perez absolutely holds her own as Marguerite, though you don’t quite get her attraction to Faust as he’s sort of uninteresting, but when Mephistopheles and his Minions get into making things romantic, you just sort of roll with it. She’s a wonderful actress as well as singer, and you get Marguerite’s innocence, piety, trusting love, and despairing madness in turns.
Supporting roles of Siebel and Marthe are ably filled by Annie Rosen and Jill Grove respectively. Rosen is all puppy-like devotion and Grove naughty charm.
The Chorus is glorious in all their singing, though their movement is the least thought-out part of this. There’s one nice bit where, as each group within the scene sings their lines, they rotate to the front, but much of the rest of what they do can mostly be termed milling around. They do have some lovely costumes, though.
While I’ve made this sound as if it’s a show about production design, the production really just exists to enhance the story. And this particular production goes so far as to fix the ending of the opera, which is amazing to watch and I won’t spoil here. But it’s just so cool and perfect you need to see it.
Just go. You have to see this incredible thing for yourself. This is the sort of production the Lyric is capable of. Every opera should be given this much care and attention because this is a transformational experience of music and theatre.
Tickets are available here.
Photos by Andrew Cioffi and Cory Weaver.