"Faust" -- ★ ★ ★ ½
The Lyric Opera of Chicago would never rebrand Charles Gounod's "Faust" as "John Frame's Faust." But the California-based artist and production designer warrants top billing as his surreal sculptures and macabre animations dominate director Kevin Newbury's new symbol-filled staging of the classic 1859 French opera.
Newbury resets the Goethe-inspired tale to the era of La Belle Époque, with the elderly Faust re-imagined as a disillusioned sculptor and animator longing for death. Rather than having Méphistophélès appear as an outside evil force peddling a soul-binding pact, Newbury and Frame suggest that the devilish manipulator and his quartet of demon minions are all manifestations of Faust's dark desires to be young again so he can seduce the beautiful Marguerite.
With this approach, potentially puzzling aspects of Newbury's production make more sense. Pay attention to how Faust's art studio sculptures later reappear on different scales to delineate different locales, or as throwbacks to previous moments in the opera (like Marguerite's house as the symbolic place where her ecstatic passions led to her tragic downfall).
Set and costume designer Vita Tzykun and projection designer David Adam Moore do a marvelous job of enlarging Frame's haunting miniatures to an operatic scale, though there are some questionable choices. It's odd that so many of the chorus women are costumed like they floated out of airy art nouveau posters by Alphonse Mucha. And all the swirling animated projections can be too much of a visual overload.
Personally, I was entranced by the eye-popping designs and flourishes. Frame's contributions both enhance and challenge the opera's antiquated 19th-century views of morality and mortality much more pointedly than the Lyric's more conventional "Faust" staged in 1996, 2003 and 2009.
Musically, everything is top-notch in Lyric's "Faust." French conductor Emmanuel Villaume and the Lyric Opera orchestra luxuriate in the grand romanticism of Gounod's score. The production is also blessed by a stellar cast.
French tenor Benjamin Bernheim makes a glorious American debut as Faust, projecting plenty of ardor as the dashing title antihero. Elk Grove Village native Ailyn Pérez is touching as the demure Marguerite, deploying her gorgeous soprano to be extra vulnerable with Newbury's maudlin staging idea to give the orphan a crutch to support her lame leg.
American bass-bartone Christian Van Horn towers over the proceedings as the tall and dapper Méphistophélès, while American Edward Parks impresses in his Lyric debut with a ringing and bright baritone as the military man Valentin.
The Lyric's new and busy staging of "Faust" might frustrate some opera fans who prefer more literal approaches. But for audiences willing to add symbolic interpretations to the dark imagery, Newbury and Frame's "Faust" is an artistic tour de force of the imagination.
• • •
Location: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, (312) 827-5600 or lyricopera.org/faust
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. March 6, 9, 12 and 15; 2 p.m. March 18 and 21
Running time: About 3 hours 35 minutes, with two intermissions
Parking: Valet service and area pay garages
Rating: Some spooky imagery, but largely for general audiences
Other: Sung in French with projected English translations