Saturday, November 15, 2008

Metropolitan Opera - Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, November 14, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Dress Circle, Seat E17 ($111.50).

Story. See previous blog. Only item to add is the redemption of Marguerite at the end of the opera.

Conductor - James Levine; Faust - Marcello Giordani, Mephistopheles - John Relyea, Brander - Patrick Carfizzi, Marguerite - Susan Graham.

It was only 2 weeks ago that we saw this piece in Chicago, with Charles Dutoit conducting. The performance was done with singers and a rather large chorus. I enjoyed it.

Reading the synopsis would lead one to think this work is not easily amenable to being staged. Indeed the MET program notes indicated that view has been held by most until recently. Robert Lapage, the director, decided to give it a try. We saw the first performance of this new production. The results are quite remarkable.

While the costume is period-indeterminate (Faust as a legend was around in the 16th century, I am sure the devil didn't wear tight-fitting latex then), the staging was definitely modern. I am a traditional when it comes to these matters, but have to say this time it worked very well, and probably was the only way it could work given today's technology.

The main structure is several levels (four) with repeated patterns. Projectors are used to generate images on screens. Quite a few notable ones such as the library at the start, trees turning into deadwood when Mephistopheles walks towards Faust with the scroll, and Faust and Mephistopheles galloping towards hell. There was considerable stagecraft also: dancers dropping into water; Faust falling into hell; cables suspending soldiers as they marched, and devilish figures as they moved about the stage. The use of Marguerite's image as the backdrop while she sang the Romance (accompanied by the English horn) was also very interesting: I thought the image was pre-recorded, Anne – backed by the program notes – said it was live. It is also quite interesting how the soldiers marching up and down the meadow (suspended by wires) would disturb the parts of the video images where they marched. I assume it is from precise choreography rather than super-smart technology, but who knows.

I do have a few minor quibbles. There is this propensity to walk backwards that I find puzzling. It's okay, but don't seem to add to the visual image. They had five people on crosses at one point (they must be acrobats that flip from behind the trusses), but the words were about the risen Christ! And often the imagery reminds me of Fantasia – and Levine conducted the second one. I have only seen TV advertisement images of Cirque du Soleil, but people hanging from wires remind me of those ads; I found out later that Robert Lepage worked on one of the Cirque shows.

Sometimes I thought the staging was a bit too close to being blasphemous (crosses being one example). However, this work is about bargaining with the devil and going to hell for it, so may be it is necessary. I also have been studying the Book of Revelation in preparation for my Sunday school class, and the imageries there are even more challenging. Indeed Anne thought the representation of hell could have been a bit more graphic.

That was quite a writeup on the staging. How was the musical performance? I'm glad I asked.

Levine still sat down during the show, but he certainly showed a great deal of energy, and the orchestra reflected that. Of course since my senses were spread quite thin by the staging, the lighting, the chorus, the singers, the video images, and the action, my observations on the orchestra were limited. However, the music blended very well with other elements of the performance. The soloists were all great. The only weak voice was by Brander who sang the Requiem for the Rat. Marguerite was especially well done.

A few more observations. While the CSO program notes talked about the salvation of Marguerite, there was only orchestra playing during that “scene” and it didn't leave enough of an impression on me to write that salvation down in the “story” part of that blog. The Met had her climb up a long flight of stairs, straight up. I was a bit worried about whether she would fall off. The Met performance started with Faust as an old man reminiscing in the library, which I didn't get from the CSO performance either. (A question: how did he manage to get out of hell?) Even though I heard this only two weeks ago, it felt like a completely different performance. Also, I would say the difference between tonight and November 1 is a great argument for why opera is so different from a regular concert. (Well, opera tickets are also quite a bit more expensive.)

I am glad we got to go to both performances, even though it was mostly due to coincidence. See the New York Times review of the same performance.

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