Strong cast overwhelmed by staging idiocies in Lyric Opera’s hellish “Faust”

Sun Mar 04, 2018 at 5:36 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ailyn Pérez and Benjamin Bernheim in Gounod’s “Faust” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

There is one great truth in the arts: mimes are always a bad idea. I repeat: mimes are always a bad idea.

And that goes quadruple when the mimes are four, silent Mephistophelian henchmen in masks that follow the characters around in Faust for nearly every second of the opera. Such was the case with Lyric Opera’s opening performance of its hellish new production of Gounod’s opera Saturday night.

In what is becoming the leitmotif of the current era at Lyric Opera, a strong cast was wholly undermined by yet another disastrous high-concept production.

One can understand why director Kevin Newbury was motivated to use sculptures of artist John Frame to form the scenic foundation for this new Faust production. There is something compelling and profoundly unsettling about Frame’s artwork–think Giacometti and a bit of Brancusi with a decidedly dark and demonic twist.

Unfortunately, while there are striking visuals in Frame’s creepy figures and assorted gadgets, Newbury has filled the stage with a host of dubious conceits and distracting visual excess. Indeed, the director seemed fixated on coming up with as many ways as possible to undermine the principal singers’ big moments and dilute the impact of Gounod’s glorious music.

Most prominent are the four chthonic Mephistopheles henchmen who wear oversized masks of devil-like faces. These annoying supers are omnipresent and stage center nearly throughout the three-and-a-half-hour performance—carrying Marguerite and Valentin onstage and off, lolling underneath Marguerite’s miniature house, gesturing at and shadowing all the principals, even rolling a bed onstage for Faust and Marguerite to gambol in and forcibly throwing her into it.

This infernal rubber-faced quartet became irritating after a few minutes and infuriating over the course of the long evening; each successive reappearance induced quiet groans from audience members. If Newbury had spent less time inserting Manny, Moe and Jack into every scene and more time on character development for the principals the entire show would have been better off. 

That was only the worst directorial conceit of many. Marguerite goes into labor in the church scene and Mephistopheles goes under her dress to yank out the baby. And in the final scene, Marguerite’s heavenly salvation is literally pushed far into the background. Instead Newbury has Faust morph into a spastic George Romero zombie as Mephistopheles hands him a mask so he can join his crew of weirdo assistants (and presumably ruin another Gounod production). 

Despite the pre-opening media hype extolling the high-tech wizardry that would be employed for this show, most of the scenic design looked decidedly cheap and low-tech. David Adam Moore’s oversized projections were consistently distracting and redundant, from flowers to huge hands and lame animation of cavorting skeletons that suggested primitive Disney cartoons. (Mercifully, the Walpurgisnacht scene and ballet were cut, as is modern custom.)

The production team was roundly booed at their curtain call Saturday night. Too bad those making the company’s artistic decisions don’t have the same degree of savvy.

The major asset of this show was Benjamin Bernheim, who made a sensational American debut in the title role. This is the kind of rich French opera singing you hear from dead 20th-century tenors on disc and despair of ever encountering in real life. Indeed, you’d have to go back to Georges Thill to hear this kind of power and finesse in such an idiomatic Gallic instrument.

Bernheim threw off reams of vibrant tone and gleaming top notes with seeming effortlessness. His “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” was a virtual seminar in French opera singing–elegantly phrased, warmly expressive and naturally expanding to an epic high C that filled the house.

Dramatically, Bernheim was less consistent, though much of the fault for that lies with the production. The French tenor had to spend the entire night clad in designer Vita Tzykun’s tight, cross-hatched green suit. (Mephistopheles gets the same hideous getup in orange.) And one felt acute embarrassment for Bernheim in the final scene as Newbury makes Faust morph into the twitchy undead.

Ailyn Pérez sang in Placido Domingo’s concert a year ago at Lyric Opera. Saturday night marked her first company stage appearance, which proved to be a rather mixed debut for the Chicago-born soprano.

Pérez’s lyric instrument has a pure, attractive tonal quality but for the first three-fifths of the opera, her voice sounded a size too light for the role and the house. Pérez’s singing was soft and unfocused, fading away in the middle and lower registers. Taken at a glacial tempo, her Jewel Song was lacking in requisite brilliance and vivacity. The soprano sang with greater power and amplitude after the second intermission and rose to the final scene with soaring top notes that made for a thrilling final trio. Where was that strength earlier in the evening?

Dramatically, she too was hobbled by Newbury’s revisionist conceits—literally so, with his making Marguerite handicapped, so Pérez has to stumble around on a crutch for most of the opera. When Marguerite becomes entranced by the jewels and gives in to sensual pleasure, she can suddenly walk unaided–I guess in this Faust production sin can be healing.

Christian Van Horn in "Faust." Photo: Cory Weaver
Christian Van Horn in “Faust.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Christian Van Horn has been a consistently reliable element in recent Lyric Opera seasons, and it was good to see the gifted American singer finally take on Mephistopheles, one of the great bass roles. While not huge in sonority, Van Horn wielded his bass-baritone with refinement, taste and flexibility. The towering singer had a brief lapse in “Le veau d’or” opening night but delivered a suave and elegant Serenade. Dramatically, one would have liked more chilling menace and sense of evil in his Mephistopheles but Newbury’s staging was all about external distractions and didn’t allow much room for depth of characterization.

Edward Parks made a largely impressive company debut as Valentin, Marguerite’s soldier brother. His dark baritone is on the grainy side yet Parks was a dramatic presence throughout and brought incisive power to his dying curse on his sister.

Annie Rosen was a worthy Siebel, well earning her usually cut second aria. Jill Grove brought customary scene-stealing panache to the ungrateful role of Marthe. Emmett O’Hanlon was an admirable Wagner. Apart from some shaky moments from the women in the second scene, the Lyric Opera Chorus provided their usual excellence, especially the men’s rousing chorus of soldiers.

The most consistent element of this wildly uneven performance came from the pit. Emmanuel Villaume has no peer in French repertoire, and from the first bars of the Introduction, the conductor drew a rich tapestry of glorious sounds from the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Despite the staging idiocies, one could simply revel in the multihued brilliance of Gounod’s music. Woodwind playing was inspired throughout, especially Charlene Zimmerman’s characterful clarinet solos.

Faust runs through March 21. Ana Maria Martinez sings the role of Marguerite March 21.

Posted in Performances

21 Responses to “Strong cast overwhelmed by staging idiocies in Lyric Opera’s hellish “Faust””

  1. Posted Mar 04, 2018 at 9:23 pm by H

    The only “idiocy” is this reviewer.

    Anyone who could possibly imagine that Ailyn Perez was off to a “shaky” or “too light for the house” has obviously never bothered to catch her at the Met or anywhere else she chooses to grace the stage. She is truly one of the top singers and singing actresses performing anywhere these days. It’s infuriating when anyone, but especially a would-be critic, hears expressivity and deeply intelligent, nuanced singing as “light.”

    Likewise, I cannot tolerate reviewer who would rather proudly type out a memory lapse into his review than take the mental energy to attempt to understand and appreciate the complex artistic vision of a daring new production.

    Wow, the arts should learn their lesson from YOU that “mimes are a bad idea”? Have you heard of commedia dell’arte? Or in general of the rich association of music and dance that has particularly informed the development of French opera from baroque thru the nineteenth century? This reviewer knows little of the history of opera and its current major stars, that much is obvious.

    While this is a completely inconsequential vanity website with absolutely no bearing on the Lyric (thank God) or attendance thereof, it’s disheartening that anyone would spend time putting unthoughtful, glib reviews like this out there at all. If this review is a representative example of your work, they ought to revoke your press pass.

  2. Posted Mar 04, 2018 at 10:46 pm by Anne-Marie

    Although Faust is the top French Opera on my list, I refuse to be subjected to another hideous Lyric Opera experiment-a trend in the last few years-after reading both your review and that of the Tribune critic. It’s a great pity that glorious voices are drowned by outrageous productions and I wish Lyric’s management would take notice. As a longstanding subscriber I was looking forward to adding this opera to my series but not anymore! The memories of previous Faust productions will have to suffice.

  3. Posted Mar 06, 2018 at 12:55 pm by Peter DG

    “H” sounds like a production insider. Kudos to Larry for posting those comments. Note that the other usually promotional reviewers were quite critical also.

  4. Posted Mar 07, 2018 at 1:09 am by LC

    I disagree with Lawrence, Anne-Marie and Peter. They are all stuck in the past. I hate traditional production. This Faust production is geared to younger generation. I loved it! It is very different from the other boring traditional productions that I have seen. I like all the symbolisms and metaphors. I like staging that makes you think. I thought the production was excellent, visually arresting and vocally strong.

    More power to Lyric for bringing this production to a younger generations. I hope they would continue doing this. I am going to see this production again next week.

  5. Posted Mar 07, 2018 at 3:33 pm by John Plampin

    A ghastly production. If Marguerite is no longer pregnant when Valentin returns, why would he duel Faust? This was Mephistopheles’s opera, not Faust’s. All he did was stand around like a zombie. No sense that he was manipulating anything. At least he can sing. And the chorus sings of the glory of war while the projections say war is futile. Did they not read the libretto?

    And mimes are indeed a bad idea. Glad the production team was booed. It’s about time!

  6. Posted Mar 07, 2018 at 5:28 pm by LC

    John, complain to the composer and not with the opera company. Those “mimes” suppose to be the souls of the other men who sold their soul before Faust. And now there are trap forever working for Mephistophele’s.

  7. Posted Mar 08, 2018 at 11:30 am by H

    No, I’m not a production insider, just a thoughtful and open-minded patron of the arts, unlike the writer of this review and several of the commenters here. Goodness, stay home and watch a DVD or go to a Broadway performance if you demand a product that is the exact same each time it is shown. If you want to enjoy live theater, try approaching it with a degree of creativity and enthusiasm.

    I want to also add another blatant misrepresentation – Marguerite does not abort her baby in the church – as was clear from the production and was made clearer still by the production notes, instead the Devil STEALS her baby. This dramatic change I find to be one of several that work to make this opera MORE coherent, not less.

  8. Posted Mar 08, 2018 at 1:36 pm by Bobbie R.

    Attacking and demeaning opponents is unfortunately becoming the norm in public life and certainly in the White House, but it is disheartening within a serious forum devoted to classical music. If H were a genuine “Thoughtful and open-minded patron of the arts,” he/she would surely respect opinions that differ from his or hers. H’s persistent negativity is typical of angry social media rants. It also appears that he/she was not in attendance at the opening night performance. I would also take issue with H’s criticism of the reviewer in evaluating Ailyn Perez’s performance. An artist’s stature or reputation is not relevant when evaluating a specific production or performance.

    Seasoned and intelligent operagoers can have a range of responses to modern productions. It’s not a question of favoring traditional vs. modern, but rather a judgment on the artistic integrity of the production design and concept. Some modern productions are provocative and engaging, but some are superficial and misguided.

  9. Posted Mar 08, 2018 at 2:02 pm by Philip Kraus

    Lawrence, glad to see you speaking truth to power regarding the tendency of opera companies to engage directors who need to say more about themselves than the composer’s and librettist’s work. It’s directorial ego and artistic malpractice at its worst.

    I feel sorry for the singers who have to attempt a semblance of a performance under these obstacles. I can sympathize having barely survived Lyric’s Werther some seasons ago.

  10. Posted Mar 08, 2018 at 4:31 pm by John Plampin

    If “H” is right that Mephistopheles “steals” Marguerite’s baby (despite his claim, this is not at all clear!) he still does not deal with the problem that Maguerite is no longer pregnant when Valentin returns. So no reason for the duel . . . or for the opera to end the way it does. It’s generally better to follow what the composer and librettist planned than to introduce “new” ideas that are not actually coherent, even if they fit someone’s modern idea of “drama”.

  11. Posted Mar 08, 2018 at 5:30 pm by Anne-Marie

    “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This means that different people with varying levels of intelligence, artistic sensibilities, breadth of experience in the arts will have individual reactions to a production.This is normal.

    What is unacceptable in civilized and informed exchanges in a forum like this, as someone pointed out in a preceding comment, is the tendency born of prevailing social media mores, to insult and denigrate those expressing an opposite view or artistic preference. There is no need to call anyone names, such as “traditional “ and tell us to stick to DVDs, etc. Such comments betray ignorance and incivility. Keep your taste but do not force others to abandon theirs! Respect for differences is no longer a value in present society but spare those of us who believe otherwise.

    Furthermore, it is true that directors-stage, opera and others-should put their talent at the service of the original composer or writer. The music or the play’s the thing as Shakespeare aptly wrote. Not the ego of some director who wants to rewrite Gounod or Verdi to serve his wild imagination.Freshness of approach is always welcome-especially by those of us so-called traditional Opera lovers-but TRUTH in art must always prevail! When ego takes over we are all the poorer in the results.

    As a conclusion, I do not purport to defend Mr. Johnson, but must avow that through the years of following his reviews of classical music and Opera, I have learned much and been enriched- even if I do not always concur 100%. Thank you for your expertise!

  12. Posted Mar 10, 2018 at 8:01 am by H

    For Valentin’s motivation, he leaves Marguerite a young and happy girl and returns to find her the object of scorn in town and having had an affair as an unmarried person. There’s absolutely still motivation there for him.

    I was there opening night and witnessed the thunderous applause and standing ovation. I heard some boos but no, not the “round booing” that the reviewer speaks to.

    It’s interesting that my negative comments are met harshly and yet the cruelty of the original review is seen here as what? Brave? Honest? This isn’t him speaking truth to power – it’s spreading ignorance and apathy.

    Go see Faust or don’t – but many comments here betray the conservative, thoughtlessness of some of the Lyric’s usual patrons. The only pity is that the Lyric too often must cater to the most closed-minded among us.

  13. Posted Mar 10, 2018 at 8:07 am by H

    I’m 100% disinterested in slavishly following the the imagined intentions of the composer and original production of an opera. One of the truest joys of music is that it is collaborative in every sense. New visions applied to libretti and scores generate new productions that yes, are not always fabulous. But many are thought-provoking reminders of the universality and timelessness of major operatic themes. Look to the Aix-en Provence production of Carmen last summer if you want to see a conceptual production done exceptionally well.

    The idea that you seem to advocate is opera as a mindless recreation – even if such a thing WERE possible, why on earth would we want it?

    Yes, I want stellar singing and orchestras led authoritatively and with deference to musical style. But authenticity is a stupid goal. You are missing the truest joys of opera if you can’t see past your own superficial understanding of a story.

  14. Posted Mar 10, 2018 at 10:45 am by Stefan

    I attended the Friday night performance. I hope that nobody who originally wanted to see this production was discouraged by Mr. Johnson’s review. I found the production to be interesting and the mimes not nearly as distracting as I expected. In fact, the mimes and the movies add a certain amount of creepiness to the production that serves the opera well.

    To be clear, this is what I would call a rather conservative production. Having grown up in Europe, I have seen my fair share of “high-concept” regietheater, some of it working, some of it not, and I would call this production traditional by comparison. I find it hard to believe that one would be offended by it. The singing by the three leads was spectacular, and even the singers of the smaller roles were solid, which is not always the case at Lyric.

  15. Posted Mar 10, 2018 at 5:26 pm by Ed Walker

    I like new visions of operas but they have to fit the characters and the plot, and they have to make sense. The four mimes were at least in keeping with the opera, and the ending, with Faust condemned to wear the mask was not wrong either; remember that the key line in the first act from Mephistopheles is I serve you above, you serve me below.

    The projections didn’t fit. As noted, they were crude and jerky, they were distracting, and they added nothing. The crutch thing was annoying. The business with the baby was obscure and out of character with the opera. And the set itself has issues, including the ladders that come down from above for some unknown reason.

    The singing was wonderful, though. I love the Lyric Chorus, and I just wish they were given the opportunity to move other than in some sort of weird formation like a marching band. I know the stage is small, but the sets aren’t helping, either. Chorus gives life to productions, and that means more than just singing beautifully. They aren’t given enough chances to shine.

  16. Posted Mar 11, 2018 at 2:26 pm by Philip Kraus

    I think Mr. H is trying a bit too hard to defend his views which tells you that they are not as rock solid as he might think. No one is advocating that stage directors “slavishly” stick to the composer’s and librettist’s original work. There is always room for original interpretation.

    However, when the audience can no longer follow the story, or questions the characters motivations, or is forced to look at scenery and costumes that distract rather than enhance, the director has failed in the assignment to present the work coherently. There is absolutely no purpose other than directorial ego when this happens. Concept productions are great, but you still need to be able to recognize the original work of art.

  17. Posted Mar 13, 2018 at 3:03 pm by Peter DG

    Well, the Faust performance on our subscription finally came yesterday so I can now speak with “authority.” I didn’t think the show was as problematic as Mr. Johnson indicated. The singing of all the soloists and the chorus was fabulous. The night we attended Perez’s voice was just right throughout especially considering how she was handicapped by the goofy staging. But even the staging had some relevance. It just went too far – hammered you over the head where a scuttle approach would have been totally suitable. The four little devils would have been OK if they were presented as unobtrusive mimes; think of the mimes in Madama Butterfly many years ago, all dressed in black facilitating the stage action.

    I’m one of those usual octogenarian Lyric patrons that H rails against. I’ve probably seen 400 productions by now, including a few great Fausts. So I didn’t really need to see another traditional version. I’m quite open to new approaches to our war horses. So this Faust was a good experience even though some of it was inappropriate, distracting and even insulting. But then when I go to The Art Institute I see lots of stuff that I think is crude and goofy, but I still go, perhaps to see the whole world of art as it develops.

    However, much of the stage setting in this Faust setting provided a contradiction of the words and music, rather than a complement. The stage design deliberately rejected the point of view of the librettist and composer. That’s just self-serving and inappropriate.

    One detail of this production not mentioned above: strange noises from the stage. We could often hear full voice talking that sounded like instructions to the scenery movers or extras on stage. Don’t know if it came from the prompters box or from the wings. But we could actually make out some of the instructions from the third row, e.g., as some of the stage panels were repositioned. That’s strange because the fairly loud HVAC in the Lyric hall tends to block out extraneous sound.

    Finally, I think it’s great that this website has some lively discussion of a Chicago event. Where else can you find that?

  18. Posted Mar 16, 2018 at 11:24 am by Shirley

    This review by Lawrence Johnson was spot on and BRILLIANTLY WRITTEN! After viewing this glorious (music-wise) opera last night, I could not have said it better myself. The only brilliance in this production was the casting of the French Faust and French conductor and the music was SUBLIME!

    I should have just closed my eyes to the license taken by this director! Crutches? I am confused- the devil took the baby, but later he says she killed the baby? Help! Yes, the Lyric needs to stop this or I may not subscribe anymore.

  19. Posted Mar 16, 2018 at 12:41 pm by Donald Nathan

    I actually like the vigorous discussion above and I enjoyed the singing in Faust. The production was not helpful but I really enjoyed and appreciated the patron who has seen traditional and appreciated this take.

    That said, I paid $20 for a main floor seat Row R (it normally goes for about $179). I saw Puritani on a Friday night for $20. And Turandot and Pearlfishers for $10. All main floor front section. It obviously helps to know a LYRIC employee who gets the discount offers and shares them.

    But, and perhaps this isn’t relevant, LYRIC sales and revenue are crashing. Next year will have 56 performances, almost the number from the 1970s! Something isn’t working. And experimental shows when ticket sales were over 100%, could be sustained. If this continues, thus company will be a small version of itself. That will be an enormous loss to opera.

  20. Posted Mar 20, 2018 at 1:21 pm by SF

    It would be fair to call this staging controversial. I, for one, enjoyed it tremendously but certainly would understand those who did not. Yet calling it ‘idiotic’ attaches the adjective to the reviewer with a far stronger justification then to the performance itself. If I ever see again a review signed by Mr. Johnson I would know what to expect.

  21. Posted Mar 21, 2018 at 11:21 pm by James M. Edwards

    Johnson was right on in his critique of this scatterbrained Faust. The robot light ray statue was truly laughable like it was made for a cheap 1950s Sci fi movie. The worst sin of this production is that it gets in the way of the beautiful music coming from the stage!

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