BWW Reviews: Stale Aesthetics Mar Strong Performances in Austin Lyric Opera's FAUST
There's no doubt that the Faustian fable of a man selling his soul to the devil is one of the most timeless stories of the ages. Without the German legend of Faust, there would be no Damn Yankees, Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid or The Devil and Daniel Webster, let alone Charles Gounod's classic opera. It's the timeless quality of the tale that have inspired director Bernard Uzan to set his production of Faust, first produced at Arizona Opera in 2011 and now re-staged for Austin Lyric Opera, in modern times. Unfortunately, despite the impeccable performances of the incredible cast, the tone and visuals of the production distract from Gounod's masterpiece rather than enhancing it.
Though the creative team racks up missed opportunity after missed opportunity, the winning cast soldiers on and breathes life into Gounod's lush score and stimulating characters. As is to be expected from Austin Lyric Opera, the ensemble and orchestra are pure gold, and the supporting and lead performers are brilliant. Claire Shackleton's Siébel bristles with energy, Cindy Sadler is riotously funny as the man-hungry Marthe, and Hyung Yun brings a quiet, focused ferocity to the character of Valentin. As lovers Faust and Marguerite, Jonathan Boyd and Jan Cornelius are fantastic. Boyd brings a boyish earnestness to Faust, turning the character into a lovesick man who's fueled purely by his emotions, and his cavatina "Salut, demure chaste et pure" is powerfully sung and heartbreaking in its effectiveness. As Marguerite, Jan Cornelius is stunningly beautiful and possesses an astonishingly pure soprano voice. She also manages to bring a range of emotion to the character, and the gleeful aria "Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir" is a highlight of the evening.
But in this production, like the story itself, it is Méphistophélès that holds the reins. Jamie Offenbach uses his tall, sinewy figure to create a Méphistophélès that is sexy and sinister with a touch of dark humor. With his wry smile, rock-star swagger, and rich bass-baritone voice, Offenbach is sure to play Méphistophélès time and time again during his career. The man demands attention, and if he were to ask for your soul, you'd likely let him take it.
Despite the efforts of the incredibly talented cast, this Faust still underwhelms, largely due to the puzzling direction and design. While Faust is definitely about morality and the conflict between good and evil, those themes all stem from the idea of fantasy. In just the first scene alone, Faust fantasizes about death, then youth, then the devil, and finally of Marguerite. The entire work, and the genre of Opera in general, depends on the ideas of magic and fantasy which is absent in the stale and stagnant direction and design seen here. Still, that magic and whimsy is inherent in the score and the performances, making this Faust feel like two separate shows at odds with each other.
The problems begin with director Bernard Uzan's decision to stage Faust in modern times. That's not to say that a modern approach to a classic can not or will not work. Controversial though it was, Baz Luhrmann's modernized La Bohème remains one of the most stunning and emotionally stirring productions I have ever seen, and it worked because the updated setting didn't feel like a gimmick. It was clearly thought out with every visual and every moment carefully crafted to support the characters, story, and score. Uzan's approach sadly doesn't do the same. The visuals are largely uninteresting, bland, and flat, and the overall idea behind the modernized setting feels vague. Though it's clear we're not in 16th century Germany, you'll be hard pressed to pinpoint when and where we are. Uzan's staging also seems to take a back seat to his overall idea of a modern Faust. While smaller scenes feel more intimate, real, and engaging, the larger ensemble scenes feel cartoony and are full of awkward moments and juvenile choices, such as a large but un-choreographed dance sequence where the ensemble is left to freestyle.
The only design element that works is Michael Baumgarten's richly textured lighting, and that's no doubt because Uzan is responsible for all other design aspects as well. As the production's costume designer, scenic designer, and projection designer, Uzan doesn't fare much better than he does as director. With the exception of the lavish and dark outfits worn by Méphistophélès, the costumes lack wow factor. They look cheap, and it often seems like most of the pieces could be purchased at either Forever 21 or a Halloween costume store. The projections by Uzan and Doug Provost are distracting and largely unnecessary and not well integrated into the piece. But the biggest problem is the dull, bland set by Uzan and Eric Stroud. A large black backdrop featuring large illuminated words like "Good," "Evil," "Life," "Death," "Heaven," and "Hell" dominates the production and is visible in every scene. The words look like tacky, jumbo-sized wall art decals that one could buy at Wal-Mart, and I'm certain that the audience doesn't need to be insulted or patronized though illuminated words that tell them that this story of a man and his deal with the devil is about the struggle between good and evil. Moreover, the idea that an opera must depend on literal text rather than music and emotion to tell the story is puzzling and upsetting. As director, set designer, costume designer, and projection designer, Uzan tries to be a jack of all trades but is sadly a master of none.
Though the performers in Austin Lyric Opera's current production of Faust are fascinating, there isn't much else to captivate the attention or imagination of the audience. Indeed, this Faust displays a clear battle between good and bad, just not in the way it intended.
Running time: 3 hours and 20 minutes.
Photo: The cast of Bernard Uzan's production of Gounod's FAUST as presented at Arizona Opera in 2011.
FAUST, presented by Austin Lyric Opera, plays The Long Center for the Performing Arts at 701 W. Riverside Drive in Austin, TX. Performances are Saturday April 27th at 7:30pm and Sunday April 28th at 3:00pm. Tickets are $21.50 - $143.50. For tickets and information, please visit www.austinlyricopera.org