Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Square Deal

March 06, 2010

John Relyea and Paul Groves
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2010

I’m in a happily sunny Chicago this weekend for the final productions of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 09/10 season. On Friday (at the company’s invitation) I saw the new Stephen Langridge production of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust. The work has been here, there, and everywhere lately including a major new production at the Metropolitan Opera last season from director Robert LePage. Despite this, LOC's jumps in with another quite modern update to Berlioz’ almost-opera that despite some noticeable similarities, couldn't be more different in tone and effect.

Langridge’s Faust staging utilizes a fair amount of modern technology and projected video much like LePage's recent staging. But despite the common love of technology, Langridge elects to update the action of the piece to the later-half of the 20th century in an unnamed Eastern European town. Faust is a computer scientist who feels alienated from the world of soldiers and the beautiful blond young women they love. In fact the dancers and chorus are all attired in one of a small number of identical and dowdy costumes corresponding to various types of persons in the village(e.g., the old woman, the middle-aged woman, etc). Only Marguerite stands out with her long black hair and brown dress. The set is minimal and overshadowed by a series of rafters that raise and lower in a variety of patterns and colored lighting effects. It’s stark at times, but the video projections and colorful props add for a distinct and often striking visual sense. Langridge also uses a series of Faust and Marguerite doppelgangers at times to reenact elements from the story not explicitly spelled out by Berlioz in the musical action such as the arrest of Marguerite and the poisoning of her mother. I thought this worked well and helped connect the narrative elements of the work. Langridge doesn't waste time with pretty dance numbers that exist solely for their own sake but keeps things moving with the decline and fall of the lovers.

Musically it was a bit of an off night, but by no means a shabby one. This is a world-class cast by any measure, but many of the cast have sounded better. Susan Graham, the evening’s Marguerite, was announced to have had a cold before the start of the show, but outside of being a little underpowered, it was hardly what you’d notice. Paul Groves sang Faust, which is one of his signature roles. He's not quite got the handle on the high notes in the score that he was able to do about a decade ago, but his familiarity with the character and experience pays off in other ways. He's a very believable actor and his Faust is truly tragic. John Relyea makes an excellent Méphistophélès as he has done elsewhere and was appropriately menacing in his shiny purple suit throughout. Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra with an appreciably light hand.

Not everything works as well as it could. When Faust looks out at the soldiers preparing for war in Scene 3, Langridge presents a modern day red beret militia practicing rifle maneuvers. And while this may be a modern day equivalent, Faust's lack of emotional reaction takes on a different meaning. Instead of the audience marking how Faust lacks any passion for glory, it seems more reasonable that he might regret the loss of young life in the folly of war. Given that in a modern context the viewer is more likely to identify with Faust's reaction than reject it, some of the meaning is lost. Still, on balance, the production works on many levels and gets the bigger picture across. It's far more effective in the second half when we see the decisions made by the lovers unravel under the machinations of the devil. There are three more performances between now and march 17 for those of you in the Chicago area.


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