Yesterday I attended the Metropolitan Opera HD video broadcast of Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust” in a new production by Robert Lepage, starring Marcello Giordani (Faust), Susan Graham (Marguerite) and John Relyea (Mephistopheles). Met Music Director James Levine conducted. Musically it was a triumph; visually it was trendy, with all the visual bells and whistles, with some striking effects, but lacking real dramatic impact.
The work itself is dramatically problematic, without continuity, slipping back and forth in time, leaving out significant events. It is most often performed as a kind of “dramatic oratorio.” The visuals are left to the imagination.
In this production Robert Lepage (among his other works is the staging of Cirque du Soleil’s show “Ka” in Las Vegas) has turned the Met’s huge stage into a multi-level structure with a series of rather narrow vertical playing areas. The playing area accepts front and rear video projections, which are controlled in part by infrared sensors that sense movement and body heat on the stage areas. For examples, when dancers are performing in front of projections of drapes, their movement creates the appearance of movement in the drapes. At various times performers walk perpendicularly up the scaffolded playing area, then “fall down” again. The images are arresting, but not necessarily related to the music. The costumes were beautiful, despite Mephistopheles being got up in a costume with a headpiece that looked like a brown cockroach, and the the unfortunate decision to have the male chorus perform shirtless in the final scene. Too many video closeups.
The three prinicpals were excellent. Marcello Giordani has more of an Italianate sound than French, but he handled the music very well. John Relyea was sinuous as the devil. Susan Graham was magnificent in the relatively short role of Marguerite. (She doesn’t appear until the second act, which enabled Ms. Graham to act as host for the opening fo the video broadcast. Thomas Hampson did the honors for the intermission.) The brilliant Met chorus made major contributions throughout, as did the world-class Met orchestra. Levine obviously has a strong personal affinity for the piece and it showed through in this performance.