Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Atomic Doctor Faust

November 08, 2008

John Relyea and Marcello Giordani
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008
How do you solve a problem like Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust? Actually, after seeing the really enjoyable new production of this opera/oratorio at the Metropolitan Opera tonight, I think a better question is why more houses don't bite the bullet and stage it more often. This is the second time I’ve seen Berlioz' with a full work-up and, like before, it seems to work quite well on the stage. That prior Los Angeles production was directed by Achim Freyer with all of his trademark masks and white face paint. And while the Robert Lepage production here in New York is about as far away from Freyer’s vision as you could imagine, it shares a common approach in avoiding the temptation to play up or develop a more consistent narrative line and instead concentrates on a flow of phantasmagorical images. As has been widely reported already, Lepage and his Ex Machina cohorts make substantial use of interactive audio-visual technology in this regard. Video images suffuse all of the scenes throughout, projected on screens that appear and disappear on either side of a four-story scaffolding that fills the stage. Much of the video is interactive, responding to the movements of performers on stage. I know some people will grouse that this is all distracting gimmickry, but trust me it is far less painful to look at than half of what the Met still regularly puts on stage (e.g. last night's Traviata). Plus, the images are deliciously post-modern, often using the sets scaffolding to allow for repetition of smaller images with only slight variations between them.

It’s a clever trick that produces some amazing images: trees that wither and die in Mephistopholes' wake, curtains that sway in response to passing characters, and most of all a fantastic sequence where Susan Graham performs “D'Amour ardente flamme” while her own image is projected in gargantuan scale behind her bursting into flames. Lepage’s approach is intensely cinematic. But not in the way that say Woody Allen’s recent Il Trittico in Los Angeles was where certain filmed images are referenced in the staging. Instead, Lepage takes a more literal tactic creating a mise-en-scène that fits into a blocked off 1.85:1 aspect ratio complete with black boxes both below and above the action. It’s a letterboxed opera. In some ways this makes the images all the more powerful, but admittedly there is a lot going on here throughout. The chorus often appears on the floor below the scaffold with only their torsos and heads exposed even in the prominent tavern scene. I love this idea, though. It cuts away potential for whimsical bullshit and keeps the focus on the principal characters. There are also several dancers, acrobats and chesty rock climbers who scale the scaffolding dressed in a variety of red leather get-ups representing demons at various moments. This production is grand if not anything.

With so much to look at, it might be easy to overlook the incredible performance from the Met Orchestra under James Levine. The clarity and energy were stupendous, and I can’t recall when I’ve heard the Met Opera chorus sound so good. The principals are first-rate Met regulars and all give exemplary turns. Susan Graham is captivating as usual. John Relyea is a creepy and sexy Mephistopholes in a puckish red leather outfit complete with feathered hat. Marcello Giordani handles some amazingly high passages quite well. These are spectacular performances not only for their vocal quality, but also for some of the physicality of the production. Graham scales a huge ladder at the end of the show that made me dizzy just watching her. In any event, the Met seems to have a big hit on it's hands. I can't recall the last time I saw a director so warmly received at an opening night curtain call as Lepage was tonight, and hopefully this portends to be a good omen for the upcoming new production of the Ring cycle he will be delivering for the company here in coming seasons. The show runs through December 4th with an HD broadcast on November 29th.

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minor point, but the "there" in "there torsos and heads exposed" should be "their".

Looking forward to this production in HD.
Aargh! My proofreading is always a little out of whack especially on the road.

I'm going to see it in HD as well given how good it is, but I wonder how it will look given that Lepage has intended for it to be seen as a screen image in and of itself. Talk about post-modern - a filmed version of a stage image intentionally created to look like a filmed image to begin with.
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