Concert Review: Lyric Opera of Chicago – Damnation of Faust By Hector Berlioz

A successful theatrical production needs to captivate an audience with a combination of stage design, lighting and a powerful cast.   The current run of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz is well worth experiencing because of all three of these elements.  The visual experience of the opera was as impressive as the aural one.

Aside from a great cast, the staging offered an intriguing and unexpected experience. Granted, I haven’t attended as many productions as the typical opera connoisseur, but I doubt that Damnation has been presented in the manner Viola and I experienced.  I mean, how many other opera companies have used a stripper pole in a Berlioz opera?

The Damnation of Faust is based on Goethe’s cautionary tale of Faust, about a discontented scholar on the verge of suicide who is seduced by Méphistophélès’s promises of restored youth and romantic conquest. Compressed and arranged into four parts and twenty scenes, Berlioz composed the opera in the mid-1840s and subtitled his piece a “dramatic legend”.

Paul Groves gave a powerful performance as the lead character, Faust. Considering the role requires the performer to sing for the majority of the opera, Groves showed incredible stamina and control.  His vocal tone carried the audience between delicate and intense moments.

John Relyea, as Méphistophélès, the manifestation of Satan dressed in a purple suit, seduced the audience with personality and charm.  Relyea’s great singing was coupled with interested acting choices such as gestures of a puppet master pulling other character’s strings.

Susan Graham graced the audience, with a moving Marguerite, the woman who succumbs to Faust.  Graham’s sublime voice captured the young innocence of Marguerite.  Graham proves, once again, why she is one of the best mezzo-sopranos of our time.

With the opera written in the 1840’s, I expected a more traditional staging in the countryside to coincide with much of the libretto.  Instead, three longtime collaborators — stage director Stephen Langridge, designer George Souglides (whose designs for John Adams’s A Flowering Tree at Chicago Opera Theater were a hit last spring), and lighting designer Wolfgang Göbbel — created a visual spectacle.  The experience had a De Stijl artistic quality that changed the aesthetic of the opera.

At the start of each of the four parts of the opera, the curtain draws open just enough to resemble a television screen or a window or offer a glimpse into the character’s soul.  As the scene unfolds, the curtains draw completely open unveiling the stage which is covered in plain white tiles.  With the exception of the third part, the plain white background serves as the backdrop for the majority of the opera.  The inside of a 1960s model house is used as the setting during the third part.

Above the white backdrop, the stage is covered in long rectangular lights resembling seats on baseball bleachers, which are raised and lowered at different angles throughout the show.  The lighting changes color and position to adjust the ambiance from scene to scene.

As previously mentioned, the devils called by Méphistophélès do a striptease to try and seduce Faust to the dark side.  Audience members chuckled during the striptease.

The “Minuet of the Will o’ the Wisps” used modern dance choreography instead of a traditional ballet.  The character of the music leads the viewer to expect dancers running, jumping and tumbling across the stage.  Instead, the dancers went against the pace and spirit of the music with slow, angular movements.  The choreography later evolves to dancers randomly running in and out of doors set underneath the dollhouse stage.  This is the moment when Méphistophélès casts a spell on Marguerite which allows Faust to seduce her.   Although, it was interesting to see, I don’t know if the modern choreography was effective.

There were two scenes in particular where the lighting enhanced the dramatic mood.  Towards the start of the fourth part, the background is draped in blue light to represent water.  Images of flowing water were projected onto the back of the stage.  The rectangular lighting hangs very low to the ground, at knee level, with Faust positioned in the between as he contemplates the vastness of nature to lessen the misery he feels after leaving Marguerite.

Later in the fourth part, the stage is lit in blue, and bright red rectangular lighting hangs at various angles from the ceiling to represent hellfire.  The ambience creates for a powerful moment as Faust signs his soul over to Méphistophélès and is sent to hell.

When I first saw the stage setting, I confess, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  As the opera progressed, the staging grew on me and kept me captivated. I found the overall experience gratifying and well worth attending.

(Image Credit: Lyric Opera)

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