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The Trouble With Magicians

New York
Metropolitan Opera
11/07/2008 -  & Nov. 10, 14, 18, 22, 25, 29, Dec. 4, 2008
Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust: Dramatic Legend in Four Parts

Susan Graham (Marguerite), Marcello Giordani (Faust), John Relyea (Mephistopheles), Patrick Carfizzi (Brander)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine (Conductor)
Robert Lepage (Production), Neilson Vignola (Associate Director), Carl Fillion (Set Designer), Arin Erskine (Costume Designer), Sonnoyo Nishikawa (Lighting Designer), Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier (Choreographers), Holger Förtner (Interactive Video Designer), Boris Firquet (Image Designer)

(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Pointedly resisting Friday’s New York Times piece about the Damnation of Faust production, I was unaware that this was an interactive opera, that curtains were blowing according to the volume of the singer singing, that the 15-foot reflection of the real Susan Graham singing the King of Thule with flames going up around her was due to projections and computers and infrared lights and special cameras.

Nor, when I was thinking of a title for the review, like Robert Lepage’s Flying Opéra du Soleil did I know that he had indeed worked on Cirque du Soleil as well as a holographic Bartók Bluebeard’s Castle, which I had seen in Hong Kong. Even then, my review noted that the music was overshadowed by the illusions of water and blood and the usual phantasmagoria.

Nor was I aware that Peter Gelb had hired him to do a new Ring for 2009-10 where the twilight of the gods probably will have the Met virtually chandeliers crashing in flames upon us, the virtual audience, with the entire hall engulfed in sulfur, brimstone and mountains of feces.

Not knowing any of this, only knowing and revering the original Berlioz “dramatic legend” my feelings have been on a trampoline for the past few hours. For on the one hand, this production of Berlioz’ “non-opera” had some of the most ravishing moments I have ever seen on any opera stage. On the other hand, “kitsch” would not begin to describe a few of the scenes (and no rationale of “interaction” could begin to excuse it.)

On the one hand, the Lepage technical crew has put forth a production of such magic, such enormity, such a stunning parade of images, hallucinations, phantasmagoria that it became—and probably Berlioz would have approved of—a dream. On the other hand, the effects trivialized the whole spectacle, and only Berlioz’ music could rescue the production.

The music, let’s face it, has some of the most beautiful moments in all (oh, let’s call it for what it is) opera. Faust’s hymn to nature, the love scene between Faust and Marguerite, the aforesaid and the countless choruses are amongst the purest songs in all literature. And with James Levine doing a magnificent job with his own Met Orchestra, with three soloists who had all the right drama and some of the right acting, that came out fine. Susan Graham had to fight with her own image (more later), but her voice has the purity which we love. Marcello Giordano had some trouble at the top notes of his duet, but he was equally convincing, with a Moses-like beard or the costume of a young scholar.

John Relyea looked the part of Mephistopheles literally, and while more graceful than actually frightening, his voice was deep if not exactly demonic.

Nor can one forget Donald Palumbo, the director of the Met Chorus. Whether working in a raucous mock-fugue in Latin, or intoning nonsense syllables in Hell, the chorus lives up to its glorious reputation with all the drama expected.

But this was a spectacle, and perhaps Berlioz would have approved much of it, simultaneously having some confusion about the rest. Parts One and Two (i.e. the first half), with its massive choruses and scene changes, showed the Quebec team at the brightest and most outrageous, all of it based on one simple set. The basic set remains in place during the whole opera. This consists of five vertical trusses divided, like some giant naughts-and-crosses game into 24 panels.

The initial view is not of the panels but of a gigantic bookcase extending across the whole stage, with Faust bemoaning his fate descending from a ladder (as, in the last scene, Marguerite ascends another ladder into heaven). Now the panel changes, to groups of merrymakers behind the panels, and later soldiers walking backwards like Hussars from Babes in Toyland.

It was a fun effect, if not quite in tune with the music. The next scenes showed Lepage at this best. First in a church. Though the church itself—the vitraux, the huge crosses, the altar, all are projected onto the stage. Yet so realistically that when Mephistopheles appears and the crucifixes disappear, a mighty gasp is heard from the audience.

Again, magically we are in a medieval tavern. The juxtaposition of these two scenes is not only visually amazing, but one feels, as deeply as Berlioz must have felt, that this was indeed the 15th Century, that the mock-religious music, the panels showing students whoring and mugging and dancing, could have been the original Carmina Burana. It was a glorious set.

After this, the variety began to be wearing…or just plain wrong. The “vision” of Marguerite is not the dreamily ghostly wisp of a woman but a monstrous photograph of Susan Graham projected and taking up half the stage. The dance of the sprites behind the panels—lovely damsels in white dresses—is interrupted by men crawling up and down from the top rafters. As a self-admitted expert on the chichuck—the Thai version of a gecko—they looked like monstrous lizards coming down from the ceiling.

In the second half, where the scenes are more intimate, Lepage and Company obviously had problem. Everybody looked so….so minuscule. Putting a rooftop on the panels hardly solved problems. The panels now had blowing curtains, but it still looked like an architect’s cutaway of a motel. And while the poster outside shows Faust on a galloping horse running through the flames of hell, Lepage had what looked like 1905 movies of a horse running. (It also was reminiscent of Philip Glass’s forgotten opera, The Photographer.)

Other scenes had an audience not listening to this glorious music but passing the opera-glasses and miming “How did they do that?” They were amused, entertained, even delighted. But The Damnation of Faust has music so rarified that those who know the score felt a little cheated.

Hopefully, this writing won’t seem too troglodytic. I am all for virtual innovation, I am thrilled that we have the technology to turn stories into reality. Exactly what Ray Bradbury predicted some 50 years ago where the walls of a children’s playroom become ferocious reality.

But I would also hope that the operas chosen be the right ones. The Damnation of Faust would “seem” right, since the scenes are spun from opium-like medieval hallucinations of a mid-19th Century genius. Yet for that reason alone, because the music weaves its own fantasy, gilding the dreams is a superfluity, not a creation.

Some operas may call for Lepage and his Quebécois geniuses, but that genius has other places, other times: Hansel and Gretel or Magic Flute or perhaps even a Rimsky-Korsakov fairy-tale or even an interactive bel canto Bellini, where the trills and roulades create a gyroscopic world. We don’t need it for Monteverdi or Fidelio or Carmen, or that already rare—and rarified—Damnation of Faust.

Not that I didn’t enjoy this eccentric, irrational, glistening, magical production. But I remember one scene where the music was unhappily irrelevant. Faust is walking through a grove of virtual autumn-yellow trees with his paean to nature. And I could only pray that Lepage and Company didn’t lift the trees and make them fly away to reveal mountains or streams or jungles.

They didn’t, and I was content. And on the subway returning to the East Village, I had to pen a version of Walt Whitman’s When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer.

When I saw the virtual world-creation
When I was shown unreal birds flying, unreal reflections shimmering
When the motion-detectors and holograms were paraded before me,
When I, sitting, saw the nerds and geniuses tonight bringing shadows and
mirrors and ladders from heaven to much applause in the Metropolitan,
How soon, unaccountable, I became exhausted
Till closing my eyes, I wander’d off to my own staging
Of a mystical liquid world made within, and from time to time
Listen’d in perfect silence to the notes.

Harry Rolnick



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