If Lin-Manuel Miranda reinvented the modern American musical with Hamilton in 2015, one could say John Frame, production designer on the world premiere of Faust now at Lyric Opera of Chicago, is attempting to do the same for opera. Stark and industrial, washed in cool light and mostly drab colors, Frame, with direction from Kevin Newbury, has manifested the French opera about good and evil and deals with the devil presumably unlike anything else currently on stage in this opulent art form.
Faust, composed by Charles Gounod for a premiere in 1859, is among the classics of European opera, so well-known is the parable it recounts about an old man who bargains with Mephistopheles to get his youth back…at a cost. Presented here in five acts with two intermissions, it’s a time commitment at well over four hours all told. And I hesitate to say it’s not worth the investment, because there are certainly magnificent moments in the performances here, including the U.S. debut of Benjamin Bernheim in the title role. But something gets lost somewhere in the creative new staging, as if it’s trying so hard to be new and impressive that it’s forgotten how to be functional and actually serve the story.
Frame, best known as a sculptor, filmmaker and visual artist, brings in his signature style to the stage from the get-go. As the music begins and the lights slowly come up, we’re in Faust’s studio, a stunning, easily 20-foot tall wooden and metal statue of a man looking through a telescope at center stage. As Faust rouses from bed, he laments his old age and contemplates ending it all. It’s here we see the first of the biggest new elements Frame has introduced into the production: video projections. As Faust denounces life and love and happiness and faith, we see projected on a scrim in his studio the stop-motion sculpting of a figure who slowly takes shape: Satan himself.
In one smooth motion, Faust removes the scrim and behind it is Mephistopheles himself (Christian Van Horn), the sculpture made flesh. He’s heard the philosopher’s pleas and makes the offer that sets the whole plot in order: he’ll get his youth back, in exchange for an eternity in hell in the afterlife. It’s a dramatic reveal and it works, instantly confirming that this production is not your grandmother’s Faust. The exception to the otherwise drab color scheme, Mephistopheles is clad in an orange and red plaid suit that sings almost as loudly as he does, and as Faust gets younger before our eyes, he’s revealed to be in a similar suit in green. There’s no taking your eyes off either of them.
Now young again, Faust sets out to win over Marguerite (Ailyn Perez), a beautiful, innocent young invalid (she’s on a crutch the whole time, and I have no idea why. Is this a standard of Faust? An addition for this production?) whose brother, Valentin (Edward Parks) is headed off to war (aren’t they always?). She resists Faust’s advances but soon can’t deny the chemistry between them, and when we return after an intermission, she’s now pregnant with his child.
And here’s where it loses me. As the drama of Gounod’s story ratchets up, the staging gets ever more peculiar. There’s projected silhouette puppetry, a house on stilts in various sizes, and that 20-foot statue is visible at every scene. Between all the visuals on stage, the performers belting out their parts and the supertitles above that help one keep up with everything, it’s nearly impossible at times to know where to look. The sensory overload becomes more of an obstacle than an amplification of the experience; the abstract symbolism and odd visuals left me feeling as though perhaps I’m just not smart enough to understand everything the creative team is trying to say here (and I think I’m fairly intelligent, thankyouverymuch).
The best part of this production that’s trying to do a million things at once (and not entirely succeeding) is a set of supporting characters who never sing a word. They are four demons, the devil’s assistants, who wordlessly navigate the world on stage through its inevitable story arc. They might nudge Faust’s arm to reach out for Marguerite’s, or ensure Marguerite finds a jewelry box she’s meant to discover, or carry off a fallen soldier, victim of a duel they set in motion. Four actors of varying sizes, they’re costumed in oversized character heads that are as grotesque as they are captivating. Their choreography sees them in exactly the right moments to be “helpful,” as helpful as demons can be in expediting a descent into hell.
By the time we make it to the climactic end of the production—some find salvation, others do not—I found myself wondering what a “traditional” production of Faust must look like. The music, the characters, the plot—these elements endure however the show is presented at each new iteration. Credit to Lyric for taking a risk here to showcase a new vision; imagine if Miranda had never pursued a musical about the first Secretary of the Treasury. Unfortunately, Faust as it’s realized here won’t be remembered as such a game-changer.
Faust, directed by Kevin Newbury with production design by John Frame; now through March 21. Tickets and more information here.