When, in 1859, Gounod’s Faust premiered in Paris, it got an icy cold reception. In fact, shocking as it may sound to anyone even slightly familiar with this opera’s glorious arias, breathtaking duets and melodious ensembles, it got rejected by Paris Opera on the grounds of not being sufficiently “showy”. Of course, one may only wonder what it was that the mid-1800s audience expected to see, but was not shown in the opera’s original production.

Mephistopheles (Kristopher Irmiter) and Faust (Bryan Hymel) fight over the soul of Marguerite (Stefa
Mephistopheles (Kristopher Irmiter) and Faust (Bryan Hymel) fight over the soul of Marguerite (Stefa

Directed and designed by Bernard Uzan, the ultra-modern production of Faust that opened in the Lyric Opera Baltimore Friday night could hardly be accused of not being sufficiently showy. Besides refined vocalism of the well-matched leads, majestic choral scenes and well-choreographed dances, it was served with a fair share of bold theatricality. Even though at times it looked like Uzan had grown a little too fond of using projected images, his Faust was, no doubt, a true visual splurge.

If any opera can definitely benefit from a clever modern treatment, it has to be this one. The battle between Good and Evil is eternal; however, more than ever before, the world today spins around the omnipresent and powerful Devil.

Having set his Faust in the year 2012, in a place called “here”, Uzan intentionally took us through a gallery of places that we all attend for pleasure or necessity. A night club, a flower shop, a church and a hospital have but one thing in common: they are public places that gather crowds. And crowds are just what the Devil wants in order to prosper, since every crowd is in need of a leader.

Masterfully portrayed by bass-baritone Christopher Irmiter, Mephistopheles was the loudest guy in the bar, buying drinks for everyone and tossing money into the excited crowd. Mephistopheles was the priest in the church, holding Marguerite’s baby while she prayed. Mephistopheles was a doctor in the mental ward, “helping” his poor victim in her grip of insanity. Mephistopheles was the crowd leader, who transformed Marguerite’s boutique into a mausoleum, the church into a black mass sanctuary and the hospital into a morgue. However, nothing in Uzan’s production was more convincing than a terrifying sight of the guilt-stricken Faust and insane Marguerite, whose souls became the victims of the Devil’s destructive power.

Internationally renowned tenor Bryan Hymel portrayed a true romantic hero, sincere in his promises, pure in his heart and vulnerable before Evil. The noble pathos with which he shaped his phrases worked its magic to mesmeric effect. The remarkable ease, vocal security and virtuosity of a great classical master filled his performance with both luminous lyricism and shades of dramatic darkness. His pure tone and seemingly endless breath allowed the artist to luxuriate in every soaring note of his showcase aria “Salut, demeure chaste et pure”, turning it into a real showstopper.

Hymel’s partner, soprano Stefania Dovhan, came across as a very convincing Marguerite. Even though her Jewel Song lacked flair and tonal variety, as the opera progressed the artist gained vocal expressiveness and the dramatic force of a keen actress. The true vocal triumph of the evening belonged to Hymel and Dovhan’s final duet “Oui, c’est toi que j’aime”, in which the two voices blended in a rare vocal harmony, emphasizing the spiritual closeness of the two characters, as well as their unity before Evil.

After the production, I had questions. What if Uzan’s production (with just a few fashion adjustments) had been shown in Paris Opera back in 1859? What if, rather than a horned figure in red, the 19th-century audience saw a priest or a doctor, only to realize that the Devil is looking at us through the eyes of those we trust most? Finally, if the Devil is as powerful and omnipresent as Uzan’s production claims, are we all doomed, or is there still hope for salvation?