The Future of Opera? A Review of La Damnation de Faust by Sara Blasingame

                                    Berlioz  Levine

Hector Belioz[i]
and James Levine[ii]

On Tuesday
November 18th, I saw the Met’s new production of Berlioz’s Damnation
de Faust
. It was certainly an event of the
21st century with video projections as the centerpiece. For the most
part, I enjoyed the evening. The production was visually stunning, but
sometimes overwhelming, and while the innovative new technology of
French-Canadian director Robert Lepage enthralled me, I would not wish to see
it dominate the opera productions of the future.

Tenor Marcello
Giordani sang the title role. While the beauty of his instrument sometimes
surfaced, overall he seemed tense, stressed, or nervous, and it showed
vocally.  Fortunately I have
nothing more to complain about musically. Susan Graham, with her beautiful,
rich mezzo voice, made a great Marguerite. Bass-baritone John Relyea was
fantastic as Méphistophélès. He was appropriately evil, yet at the same time
charming in his red leather costume (that made him look like a biker from the
Renaissance) completed with a hat with long horns that turned out to be quills
(with which Faust signs away his soul). The audience frequently chuckled when
he entered, and I found myself sympathizing with him. Maestro James Levine
conducted. Under his baton, music flowed seamlessly from the orchestra.

Robert Lepage, and
his infrared projection technology were certainly the stars of the production.
Lepage invented this effect for Cirque de Soleil’s. The projections sense the movements of the actors
and respond, so that the images on the screens interact with the action on
stage. For instance, in one scene, soldiers climb up the face of the set onto
which tall grass is projected. As the soldiers move through the grass, the
grass parts as if the soldiers were really wading through it. In other scene,
trees shrivel up and shed their fall leaves as Méphistophélès walks by.  The best word I can think of to
describe the production is “cool.”

There were,
however, parts I did not like. Twice – once in the dream sequence and again in
her aria, Marguerite’s face appeared, taking up the whole three-story set. It
was distracting and slightly disturbing to see such a gigantic human face.

Spectacle has
always been a part of opera, but in the 21st century there seems to
be a move towards a new kind of spectacle. In response to the central role
cinema has in our visual culture, the directors of this generation are making
opera more and more cinematic. The late Anthony Minghella’s beautiful
production of Madama Butterfly looked
like an art film.  Lepage goes an
extra step by actually including film on the stage.

This new direction with Lepage’s
new technology is certainly interesting. I enjoyed the spectacle, but I think
that it can only work in a narrow context. It worked for La Damnation de
Faust
, a dramatic legend, because it
brought the surreal fantasy to life, but I shudder to think of a
Traviata or a Bohème executed in this manner. Opera, even verismo, is always larger than
life, because it is a dramatic art, but I still find myself drawn into its
world, and when the production is good, for those few hours I live in that
universe. However, I found with
Faust that I never forgot I was watching a production, because the
production was the biggest part of the evening.  The screens added an element of the impersonal, which I
would not want to see take over the opera world. There is already a fourth
wall, we do not need to add a screen.

 

All of my factual information comes
from the Playbill for La Damnation de Faust.

           

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