This season, Chicago’s Lyric Opera has chosen to stage two very different versions of the German legend of Faust: the famous and more traditional Gounod opera Faust and Hector Berlioz’s far less conventional but no less gorgeous Damnation of Faust. The challenge of Damnation is that it was written not as an opera, but in more of an oratorio style; much of the Faust story is assumed and left unstated by the libretto. But what could be seen as a challenge was taken by Lyric and stage director Stephen Langridge as the ultimate opportunity.
As the text rarely renders specific locales or props that might box in the story’s propsed time and place, Langridge et al chose to make an audacious move and set the events in more modern times (it looked like the mid-‘90s to me). Faust (American tenor Paul Groves) studies in solitude as the text suggests, but he does so in front of a computer. The soldiers often heard in the distance appear onstage in camouflage, and the ravenous men who populate a seamy nightspot are mostly businessmen in suits and ties.
Photo by Robert Kusel
Gradually, though, the chorus members enchant us, not only with their voices (this work is full of rich chorales) but with their tremendous appearance. Only a handful of “characters” exist in the crowd, repeated over and over again: the old women in pale green dress suits; the brown-haired wives in gray; the balding white-haired men in sweaters and suit coats; the new moms with prams; the mustachioed office men in tan suits; the soldiers; the blonde girls in red cardigans. With the exception of the leading characters and the children, everyone on stage wears one of these purposefully banal costumes, and the effect is mesmerizing.