REVIEW: The Damnation of Faust (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

This damnation is visually stunning

 25. Part Four, DAMNATION OF FAUST _CLK6664

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents

The Damnation of Faust

Composed by Hector Berlioz 
Libretto by Berlioz and
Almire Gandonniere
Adapted from
Gerard de Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s Faust
Stage directed by
Stephen Langridge
Conducted by
Sir Andrew Davis
through March 17th
(more info, tickets)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Multi-colored saber lights, pole dancing and life-size shadowboxes, Lyric Opera of Chicago puts a modern twist on a legendary tale in The Damnation of Faust. Composed by Hector Berlioz, The Damnation of Faust was first conceived as an “opera concert” but later termed a “legend dramatique.” Sung in French with projected English titles, the show is nineteen scenes presented in four parts with an epilogue.

21. Paul Groves, DAMNATION OF FAUST  _BLK4499 In Goethe’s epic, Faust is seduced by Mephistopheles and falls for the woman of his dreams, Marguerite. Mephistopheles plays matchmaker and arranges the meeting. Faust seduces Marguerite. After the loving, Faust leaves her. Obsessed with passionate memories, Marguerite goes crazy waiting for Faust to return. In her fervor, she accidentally kills her mother and is condemned to die. To save Marguerite, Faust signs over his soul to Mephistopheles. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s The Damnation of Faust is a familiar story dressed up with a dazzling light show.

Not quite operatic, this legend dramatique has several long musical melodies without any singing. Susan Graham (Marguerite) sings for the first time in part three, scene ten. Along with Paul Groves (Faust), Graham sings a passionate duet “Ange adore.” Clad in a purple shiny suit, (Mephistopheles) John Relyea’s booming voice commands the stage dominion. Christian Van Horn (Brander) also establishes a strong presence with his sporadic moments of song. Singing, however, takes a secondary role in this current production of The Damnation of Faust. Hell, it’s all about the visual!

The production set debuting in The Damnation of Faust is fantastic. George Souglides (set and costume designer), Wolfgang Gobbel (lighting designer) and John Boesche (projection designer) have teamed up to add contemporary layers to the traditional 1800’s backdrop for this story. The fresh approach is immediately apparent as the show opens. Surrounded in dramatic black, the set is a life-size shadowbox. Ten feet above stage level, it houses Faust in an office cubicle with projections of his computer typing. This amazing shadowbox technique is utilized in different scenes, decreasing and increasing depending on the action. Setting the tone with illumination are these magnificent overhead lights suspended on wires. Moving up and down and tilted sideways, these fun techno-color changing lights are surreal in an almost cartoonish way. The renovation of the classic continues with peasants being re-imagined as office drones. The orchestration of a dream sequence using duplicate characters and repetitive motion in a perfectly synchronized fashion is fascinating.

07. Part Two, DAMNATIONO OF FAUST _BLK4313 13. Susan Graham, John Relyea, DAMNATION OF FAUST _BLK4404
01. Paul Groves, DAMNATION OF FAUST  _LHK5284 20. Part Three, DAMNATION OF FAUST _CLK6536

Onstage, the pacing and choreography of The Damnation of Faust appears flawlessly in sync (choreography by Philippe Giraudeau). Offstage, they may have been dealing with some issues. For opening night, there were some distractive pauses between scenes… sometimes even when there wasn’t an apparent set change. The curtains closed, and the audience awkwardly waited in the dark. Most notably, the pause stretched five minutes before the final scene. When the curtain finally rose, a herd of children are shepherded on to the stage. Although the kids add a dimension to the celestial chorus, their presence may be causing a diversion from the movement. Or maybe the kids weren’t the issue. The clunkiness could be the bi-product of a nineteen scene show. Regardless, The Damnation of Faust is a hell-of-a stunning visual. To calm the devil inside, be patient with scene transitions and read the story synopsis in the program. 

Rating: ★★★½

Performed in French with English Titles

Running Time: Two hours and fifty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission and several scene transition pauses


View (2010-02) The Damnation of Faust - Lyric Opera


Paul GrovesFaust
Paul GrovesSusan Graham

Susan Graham

John Relyea

John Relyea

Christian Van Horn

Christian Van Horn

Sir Andrew Davis

Sir Andrew Davis

Langridge Headshot

Stage Director
Stephen Langridge*

Souglides HeadshotDesigner
George Souglides*gobell headshot

Lighting Designer
Wolfgang Göbbel*

Boesche Headshot

Projections Designer
John Boesche


Chorus Master
Donald Nally

Giraudeau Headshot

Philippe Giraudeau



Pre-show, we decide to participate in Chicago’s Restaurant Week. The February event is an opportunity to sample a new restaurant by ordering off their Restaurant Week pre-fixe menu. We select Epic, 112 W. Hubbard. It’s a multi-tiered wooden-aluminum décor with high ceilings and modern chandeliers. At first, waiting for Jen, at the bar, I am momentarily put off by a manager’s aloofness. He seems to be prejudice toward 5:45pm Restaurant Week diners. The initial hellish experience ascended towards heaven-bound with our angelic hostess and server. Both are enthusiastic in welcoming newcomers to Epic. Very efficient, Stephanie inquires about any timing constraints. We indicate a 7pm departure to make our curtain and order the $32 three course pre-fixe. We start with greens with a delightful tangy and smoky (bacon-esque) dressing. Next, my hanger steak arrives. Although ample in size, from left to right, it’s medium, well-done, medium. I had ordered medium rare. Stephanie apologetically whisks it away. The nice manager (as opposed to the rude one) stops at the table to confirm that his hanger assessment was in line with mine. My new meat arrives perfectly cooked and is delicious. The speed bump in meat replacement delays our dessert course (lady fingers, mango, olive ice cream) and makes our departure ten minutes late. I am disappointed to note there isn’t a financial accommodation for the kitchen’s mistake especially because our dining experience was timing dependent.

After the show, we went to Atwood Café at the Hotel Burnham. This is the second time I’ve tried to enjoy a post show libation in the ornate restaurant and been denied. The unfriendly server, setting sugar caddies on the tables for brunch, says we can get drinks at the bar and sit in the hotel lobby. Unless we are eating, we cannot sit in the restaurant. What? There are tables of people. It’s 10:30pm and Saturday. Atwood Café, go to hell!

We travel down a few blocks to Hotel Wit and to the ground level bar called State and Lake. Our server, Amy, is appropriately appalled to hear about the Atwood’s lack of service. She accommodates us with our choice of tables, brings our glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon quickly and regularly checks on us. State and Lake is the perfect place for a nightcap in the Loop. Not quite as hip as its sister bar on the Wit Hotel roof, the atmosphere is friendly and conducive to conversation. Our whole evening has been redemption and reconciliation moments from restaurant evilness. The Damnation of Restaurant Week continues until the end of February.

A modern day Francophile, Jen describes the standouts of the show as “the beams, the roses, and Mephistopheles”

3 Responses

  1. […] Check out the rest of the review at Chicago Theatre Blog. […]

  2. The above review confirms beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We saw Damnation of Faust last night . I thought the opera was excrutiatingly slow and boring and the set contrived. There seemed to be little connection between activities of Faust and the other members of the cast, except for Mephistoles. Very long periods of cast members marching about the stage in lock step provided little relief, and in fact added to the mind numbing quality of the production. I found it difficult to understand the movements of Faust in the opening scenes…..what connection did those activities have to the story….with the computer and weird graphics in the background. I’m insulted the Lyric would charge so much for this opera and think this production was avant garde, “modern”, and “cutting edge”. It was none of the above.

    • I agree that this is a slow opera and at times can be quite confusing. That falls on Berlioz and I feel is a primary reason this has long been performed in concert halls but rarely as an Opera. The long orchestral segments, while quite beautiful musically, are not terribly exciting with what amounts to interpretive dance being performed on stage. As for the modern production, I entered expecting quite a bit more from the projection arts with the giant white backdrop and stage. The projection material used, in my opinion, was quite amateurish and just not very well done as a whole. I applaud Lyric for another fantastic musical performance with much praise for Susan Graham. It’s too bad we are halfway through this beast before we hear a peep out of her. Again, that is Berlioz. All things considered, I believe I will stick with Gounod’s version of this tale and hope that in the future the Lyric will step up the technical professionalism when attempting to incorporate large scale architectural projection.

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