French tenor Benjamin Bernheim American operatic debut – performing the role of Faust – took place at Lyric Opera on March 3, 2018. Nine days later, in a performance I attended, Bernheim led the admirable cast assembled for Gounod’s best-known opera.
Benjamin Bernheim’s Faust
In Kevin Newbury’s absorbing new production that was filled with eccentricities, Bernheim was mesmerizing. He gave an eloquent performance, displaying a lyrical vocal instrument of great beauty.
[Below: the aged and ill Faust (Benjamin Bernheim, right) conjures the devil, Mephistopheles (Christian Van Horn, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Bernheim’s serenely performed aria Salut demeure was accompanied by perhaps the production’s most ingenious images, projections of giant flower blossoms opening behind Faust.
[Below: Benjamin Bernheim, as a result of a diabolical contract, becomes the young Faust (right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Bernheim’s supremely beautiful singing of that iconic aria brought forth an sustained ovation from the Chicago audience, whose approval was obviously shared by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, who applauded Bernheim at length from the conductor’s podium with his hands raised overhead.
Ailyn Pérez’ Marguerite
In Newbury’s production Marguerite has impaired mobility, using a crutch throughout the performance. Yet, though Pérez’ Marguerite is a pitiable character, Pérez’ vocal performance was lustrous, the Jewel song brilliantly sung. Pérez’ spinning wheel song Il ne revient pas! (sung by the abandoned, pregnant Marguerite) was affecting, Marguerite’s soaring vocal line in the final trio Anges pur, anges radieux was triumphant.
[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Marguerite; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Marguerite continues to be a signature role for Pérez. Previously, I have reported on her distinguished performances in San Diego [Costello, Pérez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011] and Santa Fe [Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Pérez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011].
[Below: Marguerite (Ailyn Pérez) attends to some household chores; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Christian Van Horn’s Mephistopheles
New York bass-baritone Christian Van Horn was impressive in the role of Mephistopheles, in this production always accompanied by four grotesquely masked minions.
Effectively performing Mephisto’s two main arias, the Calf of Gold and the Serenade, Van Horn projected both the humor and the sinister nature of the diabolical villain.
[Below: Mephistopheles (Christian Van Horn, standing) is surrounded by his four minions (professional actors Michael Turrentine, left rear; Jonathan Beal, left front; Richard Manera, right front; Kai Young, right rear) edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Van Horn, an alumnus of Lyric Opera’s Ryan young artists’ program (the Ryan Opera Center) triumphed in San Francisco five years ago as the villainous nemesis of Matthew Polenzani’s Hoffmann in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” [Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013.]
Van Horn’s voice continues to grow in power and beauty, and Van Horn increasingly has become a “go-to” artist to cast in the core bass-baritone and basso repertory [See, for example, Review: The Dallas Opera’s “Norma” – Vocally Outstanding, Dramatically Persuasive, April 21, 2017.]
Edward Parks’ Valentin
Pennsylvania baritone was an appealing Valentin, dispatching his big aria Avant de quitter ces lieux with authority. He proved to be dramatically persuasive (even when assaulted by one of Mephisto’s minions), both for his convincing sword fighting and for the savagery of his dying curse of his sister, Marguerite.
[Below: Edward Parks is Valentin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
My previous knowledge of lyric baritone Edward Parks’ work was his creation of the role of Steve Jobs in the world premiere of Mason Bates’ opera “The “[R]evolution of Steve Jobs” at the Santa Fe Opera (which shares its director and its set and costume designer with this new production of “Faust”.)
He also performed the lead role of Inman in Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” when the Santa Fe Opera’s production was revived with a new lead cast for North Carolina Opera in Raleigh.
The juxtaposition of such traditional fare as Valentin, Figaro in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Marcello in Puccini’s “La Boheme” with leading roles in new operas suggests he is in the early stages of an important operatic career.
Annie Rosen’s Siebel
Connecticut mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen was a sprightly Siebel, who not only showed poise and bright sound in the flower song (Faites-lui mes aveux, portez me voeux!) but who also sympathetically sang Siebel’s second aria Si le bonheur à sourire t’invite – consoling the pregnant Marguerite.
[Below: Siebel (Annie Rosen, standing, right), to the amusement of devil minions, has brought a flower to leave for a sweetheart; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Rosen participated in the Kevin Newbury-directed world premiere of López’ “Bel Canto” and has distinguised herself in comprimario roles at Lyric Opera, such as Aeneas’ son, Ascagne [Review: A World Class Cast for Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” – Lyric Opera, Chicago, November 13, 2016]. A graduate of the Ryan Opera Center, her assignment as Siebel at Lyric Opera suggests that she is another artist in this cast who has an important operatic career ahead of her.
Jill Grove’s Dame Marthe, Emmett O’Hanlon’s Wagner and Mephisto’s Minions
Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, who has the power and experience to assume principal mezzo roles, is also a specialist in opera’s great character roles. Dame Marthe is one of the great character roles in French opera, who holds center stage in the enchanting Garden Scene.
[Below: Dame Marthe (Jill Grove, left) out to get a man, assesses one of the devil minions; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Lyric Opera was the site of yet another of Grove’s triumphs, the role of Jezibaba [Martinez, Jovanovich Lead Brilliant Cast for McVicar’s Exotic “Rusalka” Dreamworld – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 10, 2014.]
Rounding out the cast is baritone Emmett O’Hanlon, a current Ryan Opera Center young artist, as the student Wagner.
Four professional actors, Jonathan Beal, Richard Manera, Michael Turpentine and Kai Young, comprised the quartet of Mephistopheles’ minions.
Maestro Emmanuel Villaume and the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus
The Dallas Opera Music Director, French Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, elicited from the Lyric Opera Orchestra a lyrical, deeply respectful performance of Gounod’s treasured score. The Lyric Opera Chorus not only sang with distinction, prepared by Chorus Master Michael Black, but engaged in a myriad of complex acting assignments from the production’s directors.
Kevin Newbury’s Staging, John Frame’s Production Design and David Adam Moore’s Projection Design
The American artist John Frame, who integrates several media, including sculpture, moving pictures and still photography, into complex works of art inspired the assemblage of a team – that includes director Kevin Newbury, set and costume designer Vita Tzykun, Lyric Opera’s lighting designer Duane Schuler and projection designer David Adam Moore – for a new production of “Faust”.
[Below: Projections inspired by the art of John Frame in collaboration with David Adam Moore illuminate the church scene in which Marguerite (Ailyn Perez, front, seated on bench, left) sits beside Mephistopheles (Christian Van Horn, front, seated on bench, right); edited image, based on a Andrew Cioffi photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Thoughts on the Production
The production ideas are richly imaginative, with images simultaneously being projected onto shifting surfaces and other images being broadcast on monitors, while Mephistopheles’ four minions with their grotesque heads scamper about from scene to scene.
Director Newbury states that believes that the story of Faust is wholly within Faust’s imagination (or, perhaps it is not, he adds as the final words of his director’s notes). For me, that idea gives a point of reference to the succession of images that some may find bewildering.
The first scene is in Faust’s cluttered workshop/bedroom, containing what we might regard as his deathbed. As he reaches the end of his life, Faust imagines the conjuring of the devil, signing away his soul for a momentary restoration of his youth, and his disastrous affair with Marguerite.
The production’s final scene fits nicely with my interpretation of what Newbury may be suggesting. The minions hand Faust a devil’s mask. The angels beckon Marguerite, Faust starts to follow her, but Mephistopheles and the four minions begin a brisk single file march in a different direction. Faust mechanically dons his devil’s mask and steps into the single file march.
At the production’s highest points, it illuminates details of Gounod’s fascinating opera. Although the production’s staging differs from traditional productions, at no point does the production change the story.
I recommend this cast and musical performance with great enthusiasm both to the veteran opera-goer and person new to opera.
For my article, printed in the San Diego Opera program accompanying Ailyn Pérez’ Marguerite in April-May 2011 performances of “Faust”, see Faust Damned and Marguerite Saved: Changing Faust’s Fate in Paris.