Note: Written on February 21 after the Faust dress rehearsal
Open up a Tolkien novel, and in the first few pages you’ll find one of the author’s famous maps, sketches of the invented world of Middle Earth. These maps are Tolkien’s attempts to make concrete places and people that have never existed. Continue to read his novels, and the maps become useful – if not necessary – tools that allow the reader to enter and navigate the world Tolkien built.
The latest production of Faust now on stage at Lyric Opera feels Tolkienesque at times, in that long stretches of the opera feel encoded in an unfamiliar visual language. This visual language, devised by sculptor and debut production manager John Frame, is as distant from traditional opera as Tolkien’s Elvish is from modern English; yet the production contains within it the tools to decode this unfamiliar landscape, asking audiences to draw their own maps that link the recurring visual motifs that become Faust’s landmarks.
One of these visual landmarks is the constant theme of observation: ever-present statues with lenses and telescopes that silently observe the drama on stage, eyes that are sewn into clothing and then projected onto the stage leering over the characters, masked figures whose heads swivel on their necks as they move through the story. With so many eyes present on stage, the characters of this production cannot ever achieve true privacy. This echoes the libretto’s insistence that even in private moments, God and Satan are always watching and judging, leading to Marguerite’s fall from grace in both the eyes of God and of her society.
Though this is one example, to even begin to address all of the individual visual landmarks that help create this production is a daunting task, because they compound as the drama unfolds. Motifs often compete for the viewers’ attention, leaving audiences feeling somewhat like those masked figures, heads swivelling on their necks just to take it all in. I don’t believe it is possible to achieve a full grasp of this production’s visual language after a single viewing, and yet the complete submersion in this foreign territory is what makes Faust perhaps the finest example of operatic world building I’ve ever seen. Because it’s impossible to take everything in at once, the audience is left feeling as though they have just stepped into a new country that insists on educating visitors by submerging them in the culture.
Our guides through this foreign territory are of course the main characters, exquisitely sung and performed by Benjamin Bernheim (Faust), Ailyn Pérez (Marguerite), and Christian Van Horn (Méphistophélès). Pérez and Van Horn are particularly excellent, and the scene in the fourth act where they are mostly alone together on stage is electric, as though taken directly from a horror movie.
But though we see the human characters make choices and take action, we are acutely aware that they are not in control of the world around them. The foreign territory that engulfs the viewers also engulfs the characters. The world goes on despite their choices. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fourth act when soldiers arrive home from an unseen war, brutally injured and disturbing despite their song of triumph. This staging choice puts a spotlight on the incredible irony Gounod infused into his score where he gives the most beautiful and enticing music to the devil himself.
Through the acting of the performers, the visual landmarks and the staging choices, this new production not only provides the tools for its audience to map out a fictional world, but also gives them the tools to explore Gounod’s music in a new way. Rather than distract from the music, the visual elements enhance the beauty, the irony, and the larger-than-life capabilities that a tale like Faust offers.