La Damnation de Faust in Modern Guise at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In the more familiar
staged version by Charles Gounod Lyric Opera scored a resounding triumph in the
fall with several notable role debuts. Now La Damnation de Faust by
Hector Berlioz has entered the roster of Lyric Opera’s staged works and
can also count as a musically fulfilling venture. The four soloists in this
production rank among the foremost interpreters today of the music of Berlioz
and of this dramatic work. Paul Groves sang the role of Faust in an
interpretation which met all the challenges of the score and also left an
individual stamp on his character’s portrayal. His tempter and nemesis
MÈphistophÈlËs provided the bass baritone John Relyea with considerable
opportunities for acting and vocalism. In this role Mr. Relyea was making his
Chicago Lyric debut this season. Susan Graham performed the role of Marguerite
with memorable artistic commitment, her singing reinforcing the reputation she
enjoys for the music of Berlioz. Christian Van Horn sang the role of Brander in
a convincing portrayal by which the text matches ideally his movements and
gestures. Sir Andrew Davis conducted a fluid and well-rehearsed Lyric Opera
Orchestra in a performance expressing the vital nuances of the score.

Soon after the curtain rises in this new production, the figure of Faust
appears caught inside a box-like elevated space at the center of the stage. Mr.
Groves wore modern, semi-formal dress, and he sat positioned in front of a
computer. A cell phone was intermittently visible in the tenor’s hand.
The stage as depicted is an effective externalization of the lead
character’s feelings of despair and isolation. The walls of the boxed
space seem to cause his frustration to grow, just as Groves paced repeatedly to
indicate a nervous relation to sounds and emotions from the outside. This
staging was, however, less effective in suggesting Faust’s physical
journey from the plains of Hungary in the first part of the score to his
workroom and surroundings in northern Germany in the second part. Again the
viewer was prompted to visualize such a physical transfer and symbolic movement
from the projected text. Before that shift in scene a lush orchestral
interlude, here richly played, emphasized the spirit of life circulating in the
world outside of Faust’s surroundings. Groves seemed to be praying at his
computer in order to arrive at some answer to his dilemma of isolation. At this
point the chorus emerged from various doors and passageways located below the
suspended box. Also here in dress suggestive of a post-World War II decade the
chorus sings variously of pleasures and freedom from care. The assemblage in
civilian garb then gave way to a group of soldiers bent on recruiting new
forces, all preparatory to the stirring Hungarian March. This part was
effectively staged as nearly a ballet for the soldiers while Davis kept taut
control over the superb playing from the orchestra.

Faust_Lyric_03.gifSusan Graham as Marguerite [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]

At the opening of the second part it is clear that Faust’s travels
have not solved his feelings of “ennui.” His opening soliloquy was
movingly intoned by Groves with memorable intonation on “je
souffre” [“I suffer”] and “la nuit sans Ètoiles”
[“the night without stars”]. Only the entrance of the chorus
singing an Easter hymn prevents Faust from consuming poison. The innovative
staging at this point focused attention on a large standing crucifix shining
with yellow light, while soldiers now intermingled as they removed flags from
coffins lined up symmetrically on either side of the stage. The surging tones
of the chorus showed Faust sensing renewal and a readiness to live, emphasized
by Groves with lyrically convincing high notes pronounced at “O mon ‚me
tremblante!” [“O my fluttering soul!”]. Ironically it is at
this point that MÈphistophÈlËs enters. Mr. Relyea, who emerged as one from the
chorus, removed the collar of a priest from his costume and declared his
presence as the spirit of life. He offers to entertain Faust and to fulfill all
his desires. Once Faust accepted, the atmosphere of Auerbach’s Keller was
rendered as a transformation of the preceding: the coffins on stage opened,
girls emerged to treat the crucifix as a pole for dancing, and a cabaret-like
setting lifted Faust from his torpor. Relyea performs the role of
MÈphistophÈlËs as a suave, understated tempter who leads others to the
responsibility of their own downfall. By contrast, Christian Van Horn sang the
role of Brander in the tavern with gusto and fully committed gestures. Faust is
at first attracted yet then repulsed by these lurid displays of the
tempter’s vision of life. From this point to the close of the second part
Faust now coasts toward inevitable infatuation. He is lulled to sleep in a bed
of roses, in the midst of which he sees a vision of Marguerite in his dream. In
this production Marguerite appears in her bedroom caught in the same box-like
structure which earlier housed Faust. She seems to sleep fitfully, as though
plagued by thoughts beyond her control. As he awakens from the dream Groves
calls out the name Marguerite with exquisite sustained top notes. He concedes
to the suggestion of MÈphistophÈlËs that they should approach the girl’s
house as part of a crowd of students. As the act ends Faust appears at
Marguerite’s bed holding a bouquet of roses from his dream.

During the third and fourth parts the passionate attraction between Faust
and Marguerite reaches its resolution and destructive consequences. At first
Faust appears alone in her room and luxuriates in the aura of her accustomed
surroundings. When Marguerite begins to speak, she elaborates on her equivalent
dream and her vision of the beloved whom she has yet to meet. In the following
scene the well-known ballad “Autrefois un roi de ThulÈ¥[“Once a
king of Thule”] gives expression to her sentiments of melancholy longing.
Susan Graham, poised on a balcony outside her stuffy room and holding a lit
cigarette, sang the ballad with touching ardor, the arching phrases matching
the movements of the goblet as the King of Thule cast it into the sea. After
this moving expression of her character, MÈphistophÈlËs called upon the service
of various spirits in order to lure Marguerite into Faust’s presence.
Their duet of recognition led to a convincing declaration in which both
principals sang excitedly of their “ivresse”
[“passion”]. The short-lived union is brought to its close by
MÈphistophÈlËs who warns that the neighbors are calling to Marguerite’s
mother that “un gallant est dans ta maison” [“a gallant is in
your house”].

Faust_Lyric_02.gifPaul Groves as Faust [Photo by Robert Kusel courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]

In the fourth part Marguerite sings plaintively of her love granted and her
current loneliness in the romance “D’amour l’ardente
flame” [“The burning flame of love”]. Ms. Graham sang the
piece with the conviction of one who has granted her entire being in love and
is now left with only the memory. In this production she was now shown serving
multiple cups of tea to her mother by which she hoped to administer a sleeping
potion. Soon afterward Marguerite was led away by armed police when her
mother’s lifeless body was discovered. It is at this point that
MÈphistophÈlËs reminds Faust of his beloved. When Faust learns of
Marguerite’s fate he agrees to sign the document by which he will serve
the demonic force in order to save her. On two black steeds, as here simulated,
MÈphistophÈlËs and Faust pursue the Ride to the Abyss as the soul of Faust is
claimed in the eternal depths. The final scene unites Marguerite with the
lighted crucifix, transformed again from earlier in this production, as she
ascends the stairs in God’s forgiveness.

Salvatore Calomino

image_description=Paul Groves as Faust and John Relyea as MÈphistophÈlËs [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
product_title=Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust
product_by=Faust: Paul Groves; Marguerite: Susan Graham; MÈphistophÈlËs: John Relyea; Brander: Christian Van Horn. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis. Stage Director: Stephen Langridge. Designer: George Souglides. Lighting Designer: Wolfgang Gˆbbel. Projections Designer: John Boesche. Chorus Master: Donald Nally. Choreographer: Philippe Giraudeau.
product_id=Above: Paul Groves as Faust and John Relyea as MÈphistophÈlËs [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]