Faust Review – The First of 2009-2010 Season’s Two Demonic Themed Operas

Faust(Piotr Beczala)and Mephistopheles (Rene Pape) at the village fair (Kermesse)

Taking my Mother, who was visiting from Detroit, to see Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago was, as it turned out, inspired. What an amazing experience it was for both of us. The audience also agreed as shown by the standing ovation at the end. This year, for the first time, Lyric Opera of Chicago offers audiences the opportunity to compare and contrast two operatic versions of Goethe’s epic drama Faust.  For the first time since the 2003-2004 Charles Gounod’s Faust the production by Frank Corsaro and Robert Perdziola is being performed. Then, in February,  The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz will be offered in a new production, Lyric’s first venture in this colorful operatic universe.

Goethe’s tale of Faust, a discontented scholar on the verge of suicide, who is seduced by Mephistopheles’s promises of restored youth and romantic conquest, was the inspiration for both operas.  Written in roughly the same era and premiered in Paris — Berlioz’s in 1846 and Gounod’s in 1859, they are very different in terms of music, text, staging, and psychological makeup of the main characters. Please check this site in February for the review of The Damnation of Faust.

Act Two, at the village fair-foreboding

Faust was composed by Charles Gounod (June 17, 1818 – October 18, 1893), from 1856 to 1859.  The Libretto written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on the play Faust et Marguerite by Michael Carré (1850) and the famous play Faust by Johann von Goethe, this one, in the French translation by Gérard de Nerval (1828). It was first performed on March 19, 1859, in Theatre-Lyrique, Paris, one hundred and fifty years ago.

The Faust legend has always been popular perhaps, because it has been written about by prominent writers and composers. Among those who have interpreted the story are Goethe himself, Mann, Marlowe, Wilde, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Schuman, who wrote a Faust concert work for orchestra, chorus and soloist, and of course, Gounod.

Mephistopheles (Rene Pape)

Gounod’s Faust, one of the most remarkable success stories in the history of opera, remained the most popular single opera in the international repertoire for almost seventy-five years.  Faust inaugurated the Metropolitan Opera House, New York in 1883.  Through most of these years, it was performed in Italian but in more recent productions, audiences are treated to the beauty of the original French as it blends with some of the most beautiful and well-known melodies in all of opera. These include Marguerite’s “Jewel Song” early on in the opera, and, in Act Four, the “Soldier’s Chorus”, and “Serenade”, which is punctuated by the devil’s laughter, (which needs to be sung) cynical and taunting.

Though Faust is the opera most people think of when they think of grand opera, Gounod worked hard to make it grand enough to be performed  his time and had to create a large-scale ballet for Act Four making the opera longer so that now, it is frequently cut, as it was in this performance. Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric Opera of Chicago's music director and conductor, says in part, “ Faust is one of those operas some take for granted. It wears its heart on its sleeve, but it’s very important that the piece not be sentimentalized. You need to find the core emotions and be sure that they’re not debased.”

Marguerite (Ana Maria Martinez) in her garden

In this fantastic production, we heard German baritone, Rene Pape as Mephistoheles, Ana Maria Martinez as Marguerite and Piotr Beczala as Faust, Lucas Meachem as Valentin, Katherine Lerner as Siebel and J ane Bunnell as Marthe with Sir Andrew Davis conducting, Frank Corasaro - stage director, Robert Perdziola - set and costume designer, Christine Binder -lighting designer. All the voices were exquisite and the sets powerful.  The music was so beautiful that it lingers in my head.  Some of the moments that I found especially interesting were: Faust’s change from old to young handled so deftly; all of Act Three with the beautiful garden, wonderful staging and gorgeous blend of voices, and humorous scenes; Siebel’s flower aria, and Marguerite’s range from innocent and naïve to used and spent. In the end it was an emotional roller coaster ride and left the viewer powerfully impacted by this experience.

Marguerite (Ana Maria Martinez) and Faust(Piotr Beczala)

I enjoyed talking with my seatmate, Lilly, who has been a Lyric Opera of Chicago subscriber for ten years. She said she loves opera because, “It stirs the soul and transcends language and is like nothing else”.  This was the first time she had seen Faust and she commented on the beautiful voices, staging, costumes and the way in which one experienced every emotion during the opera.  Come to see this outstanding production of Faust and you are sure to agree with Lilly.

Faust is the Port, Washlow and Errant Families production. Revival generously made possible by an Anonymous Donor, Randy and Melvin Berlin, and Northern Trust.

Mephistopheles(Rene Pape), Faust (Piotr Beczala) and Marguerite (Ana Maria Martinez)-will she find salvation?

Lyric Opera of Chicago
20 N Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60606
Tickets: 312.332.2244 or lyricopera.org

Photos: Dan Rest

Note: A very special program by the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center began a new season of OPERA IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS when performances of Donizettiâ’s delightful “The Elixir of Love” in English began Oct. 9. Some 25,000 fortunate Chicago-area schoolchildren will be introduced to opera this fall thanks to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Opera in the Neighborhoods program. Produced by The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, the program will present 30 performances of The Elixir of Love, Oct. 9 through Nov. 13, at several city and suburban schools. For the 14th consecutive year, Opera in the Neighborhoods offers an abridged contemporary English adaptation of a famous work. This year “The Elixir of Love” is adapted and directed by Brian Russell. Music director is David Richardson.

These presentations designed for students in grades 3-8 and are performed in high school and college auditoriums throughout the Chicago area without charge. Two performances (starting at 10 a.m. and noon) are staged each scheduled day. Each show consists of 50 minutes of the opera (abridged, in English) followed by a short question-and-answer session with the cast. Specially prepared study guides are provided in advance for each attending student and teacher. Written by Lyric’s Education Department, the study guide explores how an opera is created and how the various musical pieces fit together. The study guide is underwritten by Donna Van Eekeren.

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