Kevin Newbury’s new staging of Gounod’s Faust (in a co-production of the Lyric Opera of Chicago with the Portland Opera) brings together the literary-operatic myth of Faust with John Frame’s artistic universe, in which the grotesque and the uncanny mingle. In doing so, it joins a constellation of recent operatic productions in which the presence of an artistically-inclined character provides a pretext to sway between—and mutually illuminate—plot and staging. Another case in point would be William Kentridge’s staging of Lulu, presented at the Met in the fall of 2015. There, too, the fact that Walter Schwarz, Lulu’s first lover, happens to be a painter was dramaturgically crucial: the projection of animated drawings that pervade the production in order to signal the characters’ psychic and libidinal fragmentation is initially perceived as a mere amplification of Schwarz’s own brushstrokes.
Likewise, in this new Faust, it is from the very hands of a fictitious artist-sculptor named Faust that Mephistopheles takes form in the middle of Act I. As the spiral of despair that seizes the old artist reaches a peak, a curtain—till then serving as a screen for the projection of John Frame’s work—suddenly becomes transparent and reveals the silhouette of the second singer behind, and superimposed with, the image of Mephistopheles’ sculpture. Opera emerges, in this production, from the spirit of image—while the latter absorbs the delusions and contradictions epitomized by the Faustian myth. Traces of violence, suffering, and death pervade the stage, where four creepily mannered, bizarre-looking creatures, wearing masks reproducing on a bigger scale some of John Frame’s sculptures, escort Mephistopheles all the way down to the end of the opera. Marguerite limps; the soldiers barely stand (ideals of love and war cannot be untangled). The latter, though dirty, ragged and crippled when they return from combat, still proudly sing their victory in one of the most memorable of the opera's choruses.
This—a “zombie-like parade of the walking dead, in direct contradiction of what Gounod’s triumphant music is telling us”—was a bit too much for a number of critics, incidentally for Chicago Tribune columnist John von Rheim. Curiously enough, while blaming Newbury’s staging for going “against the grain of this melodious French Romantic warhorse”, he also came close to aptly summarize, in a rather Benjaminian way, what might have been—in theory at least—the main merit of this production.
This is not to say, however, that applause alone is due to this new Faust. At times, if not often, Newbury’s production seems to teeter on the edge of merely showing off John Frame’s work. This was also a concern with William Kentridge’s Lulu, in which the actions performed and the images projected ended up appearing as if they merely run along—rather than complement or conflict with—each other. On other occasions, this new reading of Faust also becomes literal, all-too literal… RIEN is the alpha and the omega of war... That’s right, we got that already! No need to project the word in huge letters…
Notes & Sketches
This is a bunch of brief, often most personal, and not rarely idiosyncratic notes, which I plan to publish here and elsewhere. They are exercises in thinking and writing—fragments, digressions, sketches for a future book dedicated to opera and film