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Lady Gaga Meets Christ: The Lyric Blows the Dust Off Faust

April 20, 2012

Provocative, profane, and occult is how critics described a version of Faust so daring that only one copy remains, safely hidden away in the Royal Denmark library.

Lyric Opera Baltimore stays true to form with their new take on Gounod’s Faust (in partnership with Arizona Opera) at the Lyric on April 20 and 22nd. Provocative? Check. Profane? Check. Occult? Check. The Lyric’s version of Faust is dark enough to tickle the heart of any Goth and its Mephistopheles will delight any fan of Marilyn Manson, with his brocade swag and red silk, top hat, and long black hair.

Faust’s story is simple. A learned scholar, wizened by age, Faust feels that all is lost. He can’t even commit suicide successfully. Then Mephistopheles comes offering the famous bargain: your soul, for youth. All the while, the beautiful, young Marguerite is dangled like an enticing prize for Faust to capture.

Temptations abound. Director Bernard Uzan takes his cue from thinker Pascal who said, “Mankind has invented entertainment in order to forget to die.” And in his production, temptation is writ  bold, complete with a Lady Gaga-like persona gracing the stage. Words pop forth on the black screen of the night as on the Las Vegas-strip: Sin, MAN, Force, Power, Love. (Faust is in French. If you don’t like reading subtitles, this backdrop is a quick crib sheet to the action.)

The romantic core of the opera–the seduction of Marguerite–has no novelties. There’s no need. Marguerite’s famous “Jewel Song” sparkles in high coloratura from the throat of Stefania Dovhan. For a brief, bright moment you could believe you’re in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Mephistopheles is nothing but a “Puck.” Bring on the flame-licked scrim. . .

Bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter’s Mephistopheles is a gentlemanly tempter, with his low wiles and coy self-absorption. While he doesn’t have a full, stage-quaking voice, he’s plenty evil. Bryan Hymel is no stranger to the role of Faust, whose tenor voice garners sympathy even as he’s the one to plunge the fair Marguerite into doom.

The real surprises strike in the final two acts, both chilling. Marguerite, now an unwed mother, seeks refuge. She finds a Vegas-strip “church” crowned with a neon-trussed cross. It is still dark and filled with a perfect Baroque chorus of nuns and deacons miming song and censor, frozen like statues. Marguerite throws off the nun’s habit and animates the scene. Three nuns surround her like Macbeth’s witches to condemn her drastic actions. The shock hits when Christ steps down from the cross to participate.

The final act brings out the straitjackets. We rejoin Marguerite in a madhouse. Here Dovhan has the hollowed eyes of an Edvard Munch painting come to life, her heavenly silver voice lofting in a song of love. She’s a wild-haired, wasted Madonna with bandages on her wrists, tended by red-wigged triplets in red fishnets and nurse white. Fluorescents flicker on, heralding Faust’s rescue attempt, contrasting sharply with the buttery remorse in his voice. But all is too late. The baby is dead. Only God can save Marguerite. No one can save Faust. . .

Some operas make you weep, others make you laugh. Faust chills. By bringing Faust into the harsh light of the present day, we get a perfect stage illustration of the contemporary debate about the value of condoms and the act of abortion.

Care to try it? Faust shows at The Lyric April 20 at 7:30 p.m. and April 22 at 3 p.m. If you’re lucky enough to be a student, you can get 50 percent off all seats at the box office or Ticketmaster. The password: devil.

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