Faust, in Chicago Lyric Opera's new production of Gounod's opera, is a markedly weak and weary figure when he invokes Satan. Director Kevin Newbury does not overlay a more complex portrayal of Goethe's figure onto this mid-19th-century rendering, accepting instead the work's aesthetic conventions prioritizing mostly mellifluous singing over deeply internalized despair. For Benjamin Bernheim, the French tenor making his American debut, this choice highlights his luxurious lyricism as well as heroic vocal qualities in the guise of naïveté and rejuvenation. At the same time, Newbury balances Faust's flatness by upping the ante on Méphistophélès' manipulative powers, especially his role in Marguerite's devolution.

Benjamin Bernheim (Faust) © Cory Weaver
Benjamin Bernheim (Faust)
© Cory Weaver

As Marguerite, Ailyn Pérez's innocence and vulnerability do not prevent her from exploring considerable psychological depth, her supple, creamy-toned voice blending well with Bernheim. Powerful bass-baritone and superb actor Christian van Horn negotiated the ruthless side of Méphistophélès with sinister debonair charm, his tall, lithe form easily commanding the stage.

Bringing Californian artist John Frame on board as production designer, in collaboration with Vita Tzykun (sets and costumes), David Adam Moore (projections) and Duane Schuler (lighting), was sure to leave a strong visual fingerprint. Much of the production's potent imagery interlaces with Frame's ongoing multi-media project The Tale of the Crippled Boy. His inventive forms and puppets of all sizes and stop animation films aptly frame a story that turns not only on the quest for youth but on insipiration, fabrication and manipulation. Faust is an artist and inventor, but Méphistophélès proves to be the master puppeteer. To this end he has four grotesquely masked and nimble underlings who help him manage his dirty dealings, keeping his own hands mostly clean.

Christian Van Horn (Méphistophélès) © Cory Weaver
Christian Van Horn (Méphistophélès)
© Cory Weaver

Newbury's staging unfolds in close synergy with Frame's repertoire of images and objects, the connection to the artist's larger oeuvre trickling through, for example, in the initial depiction of Marguerite as crippled, walking with a crutch. She is arguably handicapped by the several tragedies she has already endured in her life, hence her initial resistance to Faust's advances at the thought of further heartbreak. In Newbury's staging she is healed from her malady during her "Jewel Song". As she proclaims to feel a hand placed on her arm, the hands of Méphistophélès minions gently bend her will with their master's gifts and dance with her in her freshly "cured" state. Whether or not she truly sees or feels them is uncertain.

Ailyn Pérez (Marguerite) © Cory Weaver
Ailyn Pérez (Marguerite)
© Cory Weaver

The idea of love early in Act 3 brings vivid floral projections that enliven the muted set elements, enriching Annie Rosen's affectingly appealing Siébel. Méphistophélès' subsequent call for night to descend alluringly upon the pair he plans to destroy meanwhile draws from Emmanuel Villaume and the Lyric Orchestra a probing sense of mystery that could also well serve the opera's opening. Gounod's score, a musical hybrid, allows Jill Grove as Marthe to cut through the seriousness in her hilarious romantic pursuit of Méphistophélès.

Dark days for the pregnant Marguerite take on a nightmarish quality in Act 4, with Méphistophélès emerging increasingly into the spotlight. In Newbury's treatment the Church is empty, the choral passages (sung from offstage) possibly heard only in Marguerite's mind. With just a single pew visible, upon which Méphistophélès waits, she enters and sits down beside him, without acknowledging his presence, as if drawn unwittingly to the burning orange flame of his plaid suit.

Ailyn Pérez (Marguerite) © Cory Weaver
Ailyn Pérez (Marguerite)
© Cory Weaver

Intense and varied colours are crucial to Tzykun's costumes, which enhance the visibility of the singers in settings with many moving parts and visual points of interest (carefully lit by Schuler). Méphistophélès, though standing out and atop tables, could use still less competition from dancing skeleton projections during his "Golden Calf "Aria. In that tavern scene, featuring the Lyric's strong chorus, costumes align with Gounod's lifetime, while Méphistophélès presents a more modern image while also being associated with more antiquated ones. Costumes again play a key role in the last act, when the soldiers return from war. In this prodution, their jaunty music arrestingly punctuates Marguerite's gradual departure from the Church, just as she is brutally mocked by a handful of women. As realized here, the soldiers are visibly war-torn and beleagured, in contrast to their energetic music. Méphistophélès and his gang not only lead the parade but seize the opportunity to take a few wounded men out of commission on the very brink of reaching home. This bleak frame sets up Edward Parks' vocally and physically imposing Valentin, fiercely on the offensive when he learns of his sister's fate, his denunciation of her especially shattering.  Méphistophélès is the clear winner here, but at the same time Frame's black and white shadow projections articulate the deception at play and the futility of war, lending urgent, contemporary coherence to the end of Gounod's opera.

****1