The Met’s new production of Berlioz’s I don’t know what to call it but it’s a masterpiece La Damnation de Faust was broadcast in HD on Saturday Nov 22, 2008. Robert Lepage directed the show making extensive use of computerized video images. Though Berlioz intended the piece to be a concert work, it has been often staged. The Met last staged it in 1907. I saw a theater performance in Berlin about 25 years ago. It didn’t work then and it didn’t work now for a number of reasons.
First it’s made up of episodes from Goethe’s play and presupposes that the viewer knows the play. This is not a problem in the concert hall, but in the opera house the lack of dramatic continuity or development defeats the director no matter how ingenious. Perhaps most important is that Berlioz’ imagination is greater than any director attempting to realize the Frenchman’s transcontinental flights of fancy. Recognizing that cinema might be the best way to stage that which shouldn’t be staged Lepage made extensive use of video projections. Apparently some of the videos were computerized to respond to the movements of the performers. If so there was little discernible impact on the viewer. Some of the images were OK, but many were distracting. The stage is three dimensional, projections are in two and they tended to be off putting.
There were other directorial concepts that were puzzling. Why were the soldiers marching backwards during the Rakoczy March? Why was nothing made of the Ride to the Abyss? Where was the blood falling from the sky and the skeletons by the road? Was Lepage’s computer out of memory? There was also a problem with the video direction. This was the first Met HD performance I’ve seen where the TV director got in the way. There were too many close-ups which prevented a coherent view of all the action that filled the Met’s vast stage. This was an event in a theater. The viewer was supposed to be able to take it all in. The bad direction was a major violation of the Fred Astaire rule. The great dancer insisted that there be no close-ups while he performed; all of him from head to shoe had to be in every frame.
Anyway, The Damnation of Faust is best left to the performers (standing still) and the audience’s imagination. Berlioz’ orchestra is the star of virtually all his work. It’s very difficult to judge its impact from a TV transmission. You really need to hear it live. In an opera house the orchestra is in the pit which in most houses tends to dampen its impact. When Colin Davis directed Faust in 2003 at Carnegie Hall the orchestra was on the stage and swept away the listener with an ocean of sound. I’ve never been a fan of James Levine’s direction of Berlioz, but I don’t think I can adequately judge his leadership of this work from my remote position. The audience seemed to like his performance, but a Met audience will cheer anything from someone it likes. The famous Hungarian March certainly didn’t make anyone feel like George Bernard Shaw who upon first hearing it declared that “If it were to last another minute I must charge out and capture Trafalgar Square single handed.”
Marcello Giordani was Faust. He made the most of what is a very difficult role. I thought he sounded a little tired at the start of Part III, but I guess not as he stepped in and sang Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly the same evening replacing and indisposed colleague. A few pinched high notes aside he was vocally compelling in the title part, though he hardly looked the answer to a maiden’s dreams. Another reason to keep this piece in the concert hall. In passing Faust is a champion of self pity. Where would art be without self pity?
Susan Graham sings Marguerite frequently and is obviously comfortable in the role. “D’amour l’ardente flamme” was beautifully sung. Her persona in this production made her look like Laura Bush’s twin sister. The resemblance was startling. Graham was made to climb a ladder to paradise during the “opera’s” final apotheosis. This had the effect of making one worry that she might fall off rather than conveying the heavenly joy of her salvation. Another idea gone astray.
The devil always gets the best part whenever he’s part of a show. Berlioz’ Mephistopheles is confirmation of this show biz truism. John Relyea sporting a hat with two plumes and a codpiece was dashing though a little too short. Vocally he started out with a woolly bass that got a little clearer as the afternoon passed. He didn’t sound as good as he did as Banquo – his previous HD outing.
The chorus has a major role in Faust. They did quite well even if the men had to take their shirts off in the Pandemonium scene. They don’t get paid enough to suffer this indignity. The Ride to the Abyss and the Pandemonium scene did not make the impact in the movie theater that they do live under a gifted conductor. There were also about eight acrobats who at time were suspended by wires attached to their groins – really.
Berlioz would have loved the use of computer graphics. He likely would have incorporated them into the score. But alas he is not around to do it. Nobody else has the imagination to do it now. This work is best left to the mind’s eye.