Lyric Opera gives 'Faust' a modern twist

Lyric Opera Baltimore wraps up its inaugural season with an updated version of Gounod's 'Faust,' set in a night club.
Lyric Opera Baltimore wraps up its inaugural season with an updated version of Gounod's 'Faust,' set in a night club. (Tim Fuller, Handout photo)

The last time Charles Gounod's "Faust" was staged at the Lyric Opera House, 11 years ago, the work's original medieval-period setting was changed to World War I.

That production, devised for the late John Lehmeyer for the old Baltimore Opera Company, found the soul-selling title character and that of the accommodating Mephistopheles decked out as German fighter pilots. Silent films were projected in key scenes.


This week, "Faust" returns to the same venue, the inaugural-season closing presentation by Lyric Opera Baltimore. The grand romantic French opera from 1859 isn't going to get a traditional treatment this time, either.

The setting has been moved up to our own day, and some of the action will unfold in a Vegas-y nightclub with a crowd that includes a Lady Gaga look-alike. Large projections of key words — "love," "vice," "hate," "hell," etc. — will pop up in the background.


Based on the 1808 dramatic poem by Goethe, "Faust" lends itself to fresh approaches, given the universality of its primary theme — the gnawing desire to escape aging, and maybe pick up some wealth and power in the process.

"I'm 67," says Bernard Uzan, who is directing the Lyric Opera staging. "Believe me, I feel like the old Faust every day. What I wouldn't do to regain my youth."

Uzan, former general and artistic director of L'Opera de Montreal and a guest director for many other companies, has a long history with the Gounod classic. It was the first opera he directed, in 1981. The Baltimore production marks his 13th.

"All of the other 'Fausts' were traditional," says the French-born Uzan, who became a U.S. citizen in 1976. "It is very rare that I update an opera."


He decided on a contemporary angle after being engaged by Arizona Opera to stage "Faust" last fall. Word of what he was up to spread long before his new concept was unveiled in Phoenix.

"'Faust' is a particular favorite of mine," says James Harp, artistic director of Lyric Opera Baltimore. "When I was casting nets around for a production of it for our first season, Bernard, who is a great friend of the company's and a theatrical genius, in my opinion, told me about a concept he was developing. I was absolutely enthralled."

That concept includes several twists, in addition to the nightclub, which Uzan describes as more "abstract than literal." For one thing, Marguerite, the woman conjured by Mephistopheles to tempt Faust, will make her first appearance straitjacketed in a mental ward.

"At the end, the straitjacket is for Faust," Uzan says. "It is his turn to be crazy and go on to other adventures."

In the fourth act, when Marguerite goes to pray after the death of her brother, don't expect the normal church scene.

"It's a completely crazy place, a trap Mephistopheles sets for Marguerite," Uzan says. "This scene can get a shocking response from some people, but if you start from an understanding that it is not a real church, it is easier to accept. With Christ coming down from the cross and statues coming to life, obviously this is not a real church."

What with visions of Lady Gaga and animated statuary, Baltimore opera-goers, who have not seen a thoroughly old-fashioned version of "Faust" at the Lyric since 1989, are likely to have something to say about the production.

"We want to shake things up every now and then," Harp says. "I've been disgusted with a lot of updated productions lately. Some directors even express their disdain for the works they're directing. But Bernard is obviously devoted to 'Faust.' He simply wanted to clothe it in new raiments."

For his part, Uzan insists there is nothing capricious in his thinking, and certainly no marketing motive.

"I will never do an updating just because someone says, 'We need to attract young people to the opera,' for example," he says. "Why don't we put dark glasses on the 'Mona Lisa' to attract young people? That would be stupid. If you are going to set an opera in [a modern time], you can't change the human feelings and emotions, the relationships between people. It's still the same. The music dictates all of this."

Uzan, who has a doctorate in literature from the University of Paris, takes texts seriously.

In his much-traveled production of Bizet's "Carmen," for example, he takes his cue from the verb tenses in the tenor's aria. A scrim is lowered over the singer when the words describe the past and rises when, at the end, the present is evoked.

When he started restudying "Faust" for this production, Uzan turned philosophical.

"As a child of the '50s, I was raised on Sartre and Camus," the director says. "For Sartre, the existential position was: 'I am what I do.' For Camus: 'I tried all my life to be good; I didn't get anything; I'm alone and I have nothing; now I'll try being bad.' Faust is thinking, 'My life's almost over. What do I have to lose anyway?'"

Contemporary sets and costumes won't disguise those basic issues. The cast will still be singing the words Gounod set to music — well, almost all of them.

In the second act, the chorus sings about the beauty of the waltz and breaks into that dance. In this case, the choristers won't be so specific about the type of dance, and they won't execute one.

"I believe there will be a segment of break-dancing," Harp says.

Purists may balk, but Uzan is ready for them.http://www.youtube.com/results?hl=en&qscrl=1&nord=1&rlz=1T4ADRA_enUS442US442&q=gounad&ion=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&biw=1018&bih=398&wrapid=tlif133434144350910&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=w1

"At the time Goethe wrote 'Faust,' the waltz was not invented," the director says. "So Gounod was wrong. As for the rest of the opera, I am very faithful to what the text is."

Whether audiences will embrace Uzan's version of "Faust" in Baltimore remains to be seen, but the production was a decided hit with the public and critics in Arizona.

"I'm not saying my ideas are right," the director says. "I could be wrong. Opera was written to be entertainment, not monuments to posterity. If you come to be entertained but maybe go home with something to think about, that's all I want."

If you go

Lyric Opera Baltimore presents "Faust" at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. April 22 at the Modell Center for Performing Arts at the Lyric, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $40 to $135. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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