Lyric Damnation of Faust Review - Life in the Faust Lane

If you have ever read my opera reviews, you know that I am new to opera and, at this point, learning to love it.  So, if you are a seasoned opera lover, you may not find my observations fresh or penetrating but new opera-goers may, like me , look at opera from a different perspective. That's my hope anyway.

I totally agree with John von Rhein (Tribune Critic) and Andrew Patner (Sun-Times Critic) who gave rave reviews to the sensational music.  But because this production has so frequently described as cinematic, I’d like to approach it from the standpoint of a fairly experienced moviegoer.

Faust is a decent but conflicted man. One minute he’s praising the glories of nature but from the inside of a phantasmagorical computer lab.

Faust in his computer lab

The next,  he proclaims his love of solitude and then says he plans to commit suicide because he’s so lonely and isolated.  If he weren’t so sincere, he’d almost be comical.  Whenever he compares himself to others, he sees himself as deficient. Cinematic scenes illustrating his shortcomings persuade him that he should commit suicide. That, of course, is the devil's entrance cue. 

Let me introduce myself...

So far, Damnation really does have the look and feel of a movie.  The projections and the set design are fascinating and powerful.  But if this were a movie, it wouldn’t have taken so long to establish Faust’s desperation and Méphistophélès would have been leering and taunting him much soon.  But it's not a movie, it's a beautifully crafted opera that takes its time building a case for Faust's desperate state.

Once ol’ man devil gets in the picture—all greasy-haired and slimy in his blue satin suit—the plot thickens (or brimstone starts boiling).  Sets, costumes, and special effects jack up the sleaze factor and in comes the stripper! Let’s lead Faust into temptation!

No sleaze, please.

Nice plot twist: Faust is looking for love, not a one night stand. (This would never happen in a film today!) Hm, this will be a bit of a challenge, Méphistophélès realizes.  Now we’re interested: what will tempt Faust?  The pace picks up and we’re involved in our hero’s plight.

And then we’re surprised by a brilliant satanic ploy.  Let Faust find the girl of his dreams in—yes, you guessed it!—a dream. Then, recognizing what an ingenious diabolical trick this is, the devil plants Faust in Marguerite’s dream.

Marguerite can't get Faust out of her mind

When the two finally meet, how could their love be anything but destiny?

At last!

Now the demon has both of them where he wants them.

The devil's in the details

The rest is, well, too much for a film.  Only opera could pull off the twists and turns this story takes.  The complexity, the ingenious staging—the great singers, the huge bombastic chorus and orchestra, the dancers, the light show and projections create both an ethereal earthly setting and a ghastly otherworldly setting--all live in the magnificent Ardis Krainik Theatre.

Faust's finish

La damnation de Faust (premiere  Paris, 1846) is Lyric’s first production of any Berlioz work. The disillusion of Faust (tenor Paul Groves) and his contemplation of suicide, his encounter with the devil in the person of Méphistophélès (bass-baritone John Relyea, debut), the exuberance of the student Brander (bass-baritone Christian Van Horn), Faust’s initial encounter with the innocent Marguerite (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham) and the catastrophic results of their romance – are given incomparable freshness by Berlioz.  There are also immensely challenging roles for chorus members, who play peasants, students, gnomes, sylphs, and heavenly spirits.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the production directed by Stephen Langridge (debut). Sets and costumes are by George Souglides (debut), lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel (debut), and choreography by Philippe Giraudeau.

The Anima Young Singers of Greater Chicago under the direction of Emily Ellsworth make their Lyric Opera debut in the new production.

Lyric Premiere / New Production

THE DAMNATION OF FAUST/Hector Berlioz (in French with projected English translations)

Lyric Opera production generously made possible by Mr. and Mrs. William C. Vance, Edgar Foster Daniels, the Mazza Foundation, Mrs. A. Watson Armour, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  

Tickets: $33-207, (312)332-2244,

Seven performances beginning at 7:30 p.m., except for matinee at 2:00 p.m. Feb. 20, 24, March 2, 5, 8, 13 (mat.), 17; Running time: approximately 2 hours 40 minutes including the 27 minute intermission.

Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL

Photos for Lyric Opera: Dan Rest and Robert Kusel

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