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An American in Paris

Opera Bastille
07/01/2006 -  
Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust, opus 24
Michelle de Young (Marguerite), Giuseppe Sabbatini (Faust), José Van Dam (Méphistophélès)
Orchestra and Chorus of the National Opera of Paris, Patrick Davin (conductor)

Although it was rather disappointing that the demons of Hell were not wearing the football jerseys of Brazil, there was still much to admire about the Robert Lepage production of The Damnation of Faust at the Bastille Opera on Saturday evening. Since I am in Europe, where sets, costumes and direction occupy a disproportionately large role in opera criticism as compared to the United States, let’s begin with this mise en scène.

Highlights included a wasp’s eye view of scholarly life, with many individual squares representing monastic cells. Faust’s search for knowledge is made to seem like just one of many arcane pursuits, with the man in the next booth, who might well be studying dung beetles, equally significant. There was also an impressive acrobatic display in this presentation, with many members of the corps de ballet climbing the walls as monkeys, imps, and even multiple Christ figures. Whatever else one might say about this production, there is certainly a three-ringed aspect to it.

However, much did not work so well. The reliance on video was mind-numbing, the video itself sophomoric. It all seemed like some neighbor’s home movies of their trip to some aquatic amusement park, and we were obliged to make small talk that would be polite and at least mildly complimentary. At least they resisted the temptation to make the ride into the underworld into a film, choosing instead a rather inventive set of equine scrims whose front legs moved excitedly.

Musically, this performance was all over the map. The orchestra was excellent, in fact much better than I had assumed they would be. For an American, it was delightful to hear the Rakoczy March played in Revolutionary style, complete with ancient drums that were primitively assaulted by their players. This is definitely how Berlioz is supposed to sound, but if the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra had played this way, every critic in town – save one, of course – would have laughed them out of the pit. Elsewhere, the instrumental forces were crisp and clean, although the oom-pah-pah conducting of Patrick Davin did little to inspire either them or the singers. The chorus was superb throughout, positively frightening in spots, and always highly dramatic.

Alas, the soloists were all disappointing. Giuseppe Sabbatini has clearly seen his best years slip away. He sounded interesting and invested in the beginning when he was the old scholar, but once his character was rejuvenated by Méphisto, his voice seemed particularly inappropriate. José Van Dam can do so much better, and normally does. He seemed to be phoning it in this night, perhaps demotivated by the limp leadership from the pit. Michelle de Young was acceptable at best, delivering an okay King of Thule aria, but, after enjoying the only standard spotlight of the evening, leaving us all wanting a much more passionate D’amour l’ardente flamme.

About three minutes after the opera ended, France beat Brazil in the quarterfinal match and a different sort of Pandemonium broke out. This production is coming to the Metropolitan in future seasons under Seiji Ozawa. I would guess that the singing will be of a higher quality – Marcello Giordani is already on board - but the orchestra will play it very differently (not necessarily better). Mr. Lepage is also scheduled to unveil the new “Ring” at the Met in 2010, but don’t bet the ranch that Mr. Levine will still be there to conduct it.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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