Playwright: Charles Gounod ( music ); Jules Barbier and Michel Carre ( libretto )
Based on: Carre's Faust et Marguerite and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, Part One. At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-827-5600; LyricOpera.org; $34-$279. Runs through: March 21 ( in repertory )
The man who sold his soul ( if not the world ) returns to the Lyric, but he's undergone some stunning transformations. In Kevin Newbury's new staging ( a co-production with Oregon's Portland Opera ), Faust is an aging artist, not a philosopher/scientist, and that left-brain orientation drives him to create Mephistopheles out of a block of wood. This suggests that the entire story is a product of his fevered imagination.
That concept doesn't always stay in focus here once we're out of Faust's gloomy atelier. But the universe created by production designer John Frame provides a visual feast throughout. A California-based sculptor/filmmaker, Frame is new to theatrical design. But his surreal dark sense of whimsy fills the Lyric stage with one startling image after another, from shadow-puppet skeletons and skulls to stop-motion animation to lush floral images. ( Projections designer David Adam Moore collaborated with Frame. )
Most notably, a large sculptural puppet figure stands sentry over the story at various points, seemingly viewing the world of the opera through a series of lenses. ( Fans of Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer may also find echoes of his 1994 film, Faust, which used stop-motion animation and puppetry. ) A quartet of non-singing "minions" in menacing oversized head masks accompany Faust, doing the devil's work. ( Vita Tzykun created the sets and costumes, which mesh well with Frame's visual palette. )
Some of the lush romanticism most often associated with Charles Gounod's opera takes a backseat, but Newbury adds elements to the story that allow us to reimagine these characters ourselves. Ailyn Perez's doomed Marguerite walks with a crutch, which makes her transformation in the "Jewel Song," where Faust seduces her with a box of baubles, more poignant. We sense that this is a woman who isn't used to seeing herself as glittering and beautiful, which makes her final redemptive transformation especially resonant. Perez brings fire and wistfulness throughout her fine sensitive performance. ( Ana Maria Martinez performs the role on March 21. )
Benjamin Bernheim's Faust and Christian Van Horn's Mephistopheles balance each other beautifully as well. The former, making his American debut here, creates a Faust who seems lost in a world where he can't control the materials around him. ( One could argue that every artist fears what happens to his work once it's out in the world. ) There are flashes of wry wit in their interplay, as when Bernheim's newly young-again Faust tries to imitate Van Horn's man-of-the-world ( or demon-of-the-world, as it were ) self-assured stances.
Newbury doesn't let the visuals do all the heavy lifting here. The projections blend seamlessly into the dreamscape/hellscape worlds of the story. Supporting turns from Annie Rosen as sympathetic Siebel, who harbors unrequited love for Marguerite, and Jill Grove as the worldly comic matron Marthe, suggest that love and lust don't require the hand of an artist or a supernatural presence to flourish in the world.
While not for traditionalists, this Faust honors the roots of Gounod's opera while allowing new ideas and images to blossom.