Deal with the Devil

A good weekend for opera: Austin Lyric Opera's Faust and Butler's Don Giovanni tackle classics with a modern twist

A good weekend for opera: Austin Lyric Opera's Faust

Austin Lyric Opera
Austin Lyric Opera's contemporary take on Faust.

Among the myriad of food, music and arts festivals heading to the Capital City, this is also a good weekend for opera lovers in Austin.

Austin Lyric Opera’s moving and meaningful production of Gounod’s Faust opens Thursday at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, and the Butler School of Music finishes its run of Mozart's famous Don Giovanni, featuring admirable student talent at McCullough Hall. 

There are lots of different versions of the Faust story roaming around. There’s the play by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe, the reworking by Goethe, and a more contemporary version by Thomas Mann. Composer Charles Gounod (who is not known for many things other than this opera and his Ave Maria) competes with Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust for the title of “best Faust opera.” And I suppose they all compete with Randy Newman’s Faust opera of 1993.  

The music of Faust is from that sweet spot in French history at the start of romanticism where you can hear hints of what's soon to come from impressionists like Debussy, but it is still a bit reserved. There is also something of the creepy 19th Century old French man about play, but with very heavy handed super-religious morals running through it all. It makes for a very solidly messed up combination of sex and sin and heaven and hell in the plot.  

Austin Lyric Opera tackles Faust with a modern production that teeters on its commitment to the contemporary setting. ALO comes close to accomplishing this — the first act is set in a chic modern nightclub; the backdrop throughout the performance showcases modern projections — but stops short of fully bringing the audience into the modern aesthetic.

Fireworks aside, ALO's Faust is one of the best things I've seen all year. The story and the music are worth the time, and the production has some really solid moments. Faust features good entertainment as well as quality performing.

The cast gelled well as an ensemble and (other than the not-so-convincing costuming of the drag Siebel) the characters were compelling. I give special hat tips to the acting of Mephistopheles (Jamie Offenbach makes for a handsome devil) and Marguerite (Jan Cornelius inspired me to also resist the flames of hell), as well as the singing of Faust (Jonathan Boyd) and Valentin (Hyung Yun).

Everything worked together in a really solid way to make for — I'll say it — a much more moving and meaningful evening than I had at Pagliacci last fall. I sincerely hope that ALO will continue to tackle such ambitious, less-canonical productions in the future.

If you are looking for some culture this weekend and can't make it out to the Long Center, then Don G is another viable option. 

The Butler Opera Center's production of Mozart's classic Don Giovanni also did the modern twist in a way that had perhaps a bit more of a concrete setting (very clearly ‘80s throwback on a budget), but didn't go quite as berserk as it could have. 1980s costume decisions that worked well include pink and green Converse, black hoodies, and excessive quantities of leather. There's even a fair bit of cocaine. And whiskey.

The cast rotates depending on the night, but the production I saw on Sunday featured some inspired performances by up-and-coming students. I was particularly touched by the singing in the trio between Donna Anna (Andrea Ramos), Don Ottavio (Soonchan Kwon) and Donna Elvira (Stephanie Lange), and got some solid laughs by the energetic acting of Chance Eakin as Leporello.

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Faust runs Thursday, April 25 - Sunday, April 28 at the Long Center. Don Giovanni runs Friday, April 26.