Newbury and His Colleagues Deliver a Riveting Faust

07/03/2018

Gounod, Faust: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago / Emmanuel Villaume (conductor), Chicago. 3.3.2018. (JLZ)

 The cast of Gounod's Faust (Photo: Cory Weaver)

The cast of Gounod’s Faust (c) Cory Weaver

Cast:

Faust – Benjamin Bernheim
Méphistophélès – Christian Van Horn
Marguerite – Ailyn Pérez
Valentin – Edward Parks
Siébel – Annie Rosen
Marthe – Jill Grove
Wagner – Emmett O’Hanlon

Production:

Director – Kevin Newbury
Production Designer – John Frame
Set and Costume Designer – Vita Tzykun
Lighting Designer – Duane Schuler
Projection Designer – David Adam Moore
Chorus Master – Michael Black

While the Faust story is captured in numerous musical works, Gounod’s version still grips the imagination because of productions like the new one presented at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The staging by John Frame, with sets and costumes by Vita Tzykun, offered a post-modern take on the libretto, with computer screens playing videos of the Faust story, and costumes that reflected the score’s period, except for the twentieth-century attire for Faust and Méphistophélès. These disparate elements blended well to create the colorful setting, enhanced by carefully conceived projections by David Adam Moore.

The results were engaging, enhanced by the masterful direction of Kevin Newbury, whose deft hand brought out the dramatic moments with appropriate skill. His efforts were bolstered by Emmanuel Villaume’s outstanding conducting, giving shape and focus to the score. Villaume’s expert hand was evident in the carefully-voiced sonorities, blending of the brass and percussion, and subtleties that made set pieces like the military marches and the village dances sound fresh and exciting. More than that, Villaume supported the solo voices with fine attention to the stage, as well as care with the details, such as his tasteful stretching of measures and passages to accentuate lyricism.

As Faust, Benjamin Bernheim’s strong tenor offered a fine sense of pitch and even tone, and intense delivery when moments required it. At the end of Act I, his transformation was audible, adding to the dramatic trajectory. In the second act, though, Bernheim was at times unsubtle in his romantic moments.

As Marguerite, American soprano Ailyn Pérez made her Lyric stage debut, following her appearance in the 2010–11 ‘Celebrating Placido’ concert. Her interpretation of the famous ‘King of Thule’ ballad was nicely intimate, and she brought similar delicacy to the subsequent ‘Jewel Song’. In the latter, she showed musical and dramatic acumen in the quieter passages reflecting her character’s wonder at the treasure in her hands. Yet some of the more exuberant passages would have benefited from the clarity that is within her abilities. In the fourth act, the extended scene in which the bereft Marguerite expresses anxiety about her relationship with Faust was persuasive, as was the church scene with Mephistopheles, which climaxed with him yanking her baby away.

Christian Van Horn was outstanding as Méphistophélès. His deep, articulate bass fit the role to perfection. The ‘Calf of Gold’ aria was a tour de force, followed by an authoritative transition to the next scene. His keen gestures matched his musical finesse as if the role were created for him. Van Horn gave the Act II asides full attention, making the scenes with Jill Grove (as Martha) indelible. Further, his intensity propelled the last-act trio to its conclusion, with his judgment of Faust unequivocally stated.

The chorus showed assurance and a fine blend, with rich, warm colors in the famous Act II waltz. In the fourth act, the singers conveyed emotions appropriate for soldiers returning from a clearly fruitless war. Newbury directed the scene with Valentin and Faust with remarkable skill. As Valentin, Edward Parks gave his all in his challenges to Faust, a sequence that benefited from the chorus’s horrified reaction.

Shared with the Portland Opera, this production warrants attention for the ways in which it offers modern audiences an unusual and relevant staging of this familiar work. The details that Frame and his collaborators brought would make it worth seeing again, to fully grasp the many nuances.

James L. Zychowicz

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