Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Met's La Damnation de Faust strikes bargain with high tech and succeeds

The wonders of modern technology enhanced the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Hector Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust.” I experienced the performance on Monday night and came away impressed with how state-of-the-art wizardry can create a cinematic spectacle to tell of Berlioz’s episodic work. Supported by an exceptional cast of principals and an outstanding chorus, the Met was able to bring an understandable and artistic interpretation of this fantasy-laden creation to life. Yet it seems to have a little further to go in order to capture the imagination and the enthusiasm of the audience.

When Berlioz completed “La Damnation de Faust” in 1846, the Opera-Comique presented it a few months later with disastrous results. The Parisian public hated it and ignored it. Only two out of three performances took place, and it was never attempted again until 1877, eight years after Berlioz died.

The monumental effort at the Met marked its first full-scale production since 1906. With Marcello Giordani as Faust, a legendary man who sold his soul to the devil so that he could attain the limits of human aspirations, the performance had solid footing. Giordani has a secure, beautiful tenor voice that can soar, but he never quite put it into overdrive. His Faust is one of controlled emotions, even when he is lusting for Marguerite, the heroine of the story.

Susan Graham created a soulful Marguerite. Her longing for Faust was palpable, and her rich, warm voice resonated wonderfully. I especially loved her expressive singing of the ballad about the King of Thule, which was beautifully accompanied by solo viola.

John Relyea struck a cunning figure as Méphistophélès. He put a powerful, yet sly spin on his rich baritone, which, combined with his agility as an actor, conveyed the sense of a manipulator who always knew how to get the upper hand.

I also enjoyed Patrick Carfizzi’s animated Brander, the gadfly in the tavern who could barely contain himself when singing a silly story. Yet some of the lowest notes that Carfizzi sang seemed to be out of his range, which made me wonder why the Met cast him for this role.

The chorus shined like a gem throughout the evening. Their attacks were spot on; their sound was full, blended, and resonant. Chorus master Donald Palumbo deserves the highest praise in preparing them for this work, in which the chorus is strenuously involved in almost every scene.

Under music director James Levine, the orchestra played superbly. The violins excelled in their many silky passages. Orchestral crescendos and decrescendos were unified and the overall tone was finely honed, expressive, but never sloppy or sentimental.

This new production of “La damnation de Faust” relied on the technical magic of director Robert Lepage to get the story across. A huge, grid-like structure, dominated the stage and a variety of images were effectively projected on it. The structure used some very carefully constructed mesh panels or scrims, which easily collapsed or unfolded whenever needed.

Carl Fillion’s multi-storied set design was wonderfully enhanced by the effects of lighting designer Sonoyo Nishikawa. The opening scene showed a tower of books, which then became segmented into several libraries, which then morphed into a blue sky. And those were just of few of the transitions which were seamless and convincing. Without this ability to quickly change the setting and mood, Berlioz’s work would still be on the drawing boards.

Also exceptional was the work of Holger Förterer, interactive video designer and Boris Firquest, image designer. At one point Graham walks across the front of the stage and her head is supersized and imposed on the screen behind her, and it seems to be steaming with passionate red flames. Sometimes people behind the screens affected the images that were displayed to the audience. I recall several swirling, twirling images that seemed to be created that way.

Choreographers Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier came up with inventive ways to create dance moves inside and outside the grid-structure. I’ve never seen so much use of cabled people on stage except at a Cirque du Soleil show. (And Guthier has worked with Lepage for Cirque du Soleil.)

Costumes by Karin Erskine were a blend of modern and traditional. The most vibrant getup was the red number that Relyea wore as Méphistophélès. His cap sported two long red feathers that made me think of a Robin Hood gone bad.

Many audience members left right after the curtain closed. That seemed impolite and disrespectful to the work that went into this production. I guess they didn’t like the technology used in this production, but overall, I think that it was a brilliant solution.

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