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
Surely, modernizing the story of Faust is no new feat – my first introduction to the tale was though the Goodman’s staging of Randy Newman’s Faust, a deliciously tongue-in-cheek musical. But Berlioz’s opera/oratorio is serious through and through, making the modernization – of costumes, wigs, sets, props, and dances – jarring at first. Adding to this initial confusion is the very stark, very bright raked stage introduced in Scene 2 and used through much of the performance.
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.
This is not the only facet of the production that seems odd at first, later blossoming into full beauty. Without much guidance from the story, the choreography plays with time itself, sometimes repeating earlier blocking again and again, perhaps in reverse or slow motion, often with multiple dancers (the minions of sly Mephistopheles, played by John Relyea) repeating movements simultaneously. If it sounds intricate, it is. Actions that seemed meaningless at first, like those of Faust as he first enters Marguerite’s (Susan Graham) bedroom, are carefully reenacted to trancelike effect.
For the most part, these artful touches add a scintillating new dimension to the story. Just as, in Berlioz’s tale, the lovers meet in dreams and are thus never clearly known to each other, the production repeatedly presents us with beautiful or terrifying imagery that dances at the edge of clarity. A few moments seem contrived, like the blinding lights that shine right at the audience in Part 1. When executed again near the end of the show, the effect is far more acceptable, but early on it felt cruel and annoying. Late in the show, demons place virtual-reality goggles on Faust to represent his race to save Marguerite; this feels a bit like a copout, and the least they could do is show us what Faust is seeing in there, particularly in a show that makes heavy use of projection.
These odd moments are more than balanced, though, by ones of truly timeless imagery – for example, when we return from a scene change to fine Marguerite waiting in the same position as when Faust left, her bouquet of red roses now dried and black. Then there’s the soaring Berlioz music itself, which could not have been performed more expertly than it was here by Groves, Graham, Relyea, Christian Van Horn (as Brander), the Anima children’s chorus, and Lyric’s own chorus and orchestra. Paired with such superb performances, this outside-the-box staging allows the audience to view 19th century music and an even older legend through new eyes, and conjures the agelessness that every great opera aspires to.