La Damnation de Faust
Nov. 10, Met, Lincoln Center NY
Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Robert Driver directed Fidelio for the first time in his 40 year career because he had the opportunity to present a high concept production design that he felt pointed to the specific musical challenges the opera presented.

Driver collaborated with conceptual artist Jan Kaneko to come up with a minimalist multi-tech art installation for the set. The reaction from critic and the public was mixed. For some, the starkness and neutrality completely served Driver’s purpose, but for many, the minimalism was a complete distraction.

There is no split decision on the production designs for Robert Lepage’s production of ‘La Damnation de Faust’ which just concluded a successful run at the Metropolitan Opera. It is a hi-def, state of the cirque art, complete distraction.

Set designer Carl Fillion is Lepage’s stage alchemist and he creates a bounty of stunning stage pictures. The four-tier 24 cube matrix, is the backdrop to multi tech film elements.
The Met orchestra is subjugated from the scale of this, which, considering the epically wily scale of Berlioz’s structure is perplexing. Not that James Levine didn’t try to hold sway with a mostly rote lushness especially in the choral sections. Chorus and orchestra together had the might to face off grandly with the set.

The physical production may make this a Faust for its time, but it also blatantly overwhelms the music. Marcello Giordani, a tenor, maintains Faust’s intense vocal serenity in the opening scenes, as he contemplates his suicide, that draws one into the nuances, even as the set opens up into a series of cinematic distractions. Later, his vocal performance seemed unfocused and, his characterization lacked dimension. Perhaps it was one of the tech miscues or some of the thuds from backstage. Eventually, he vocally ducks out of the way of the spectacale.

John Relyea fared better as Mephistopheles, even in a Members Only oxblood waistcoat and plumed hat, has an Errol Flynn swagger that is more devilish than dark. Relyea’s bass-baritone is fully charged in the role. When he does flash his evilness in brief moments, he make it count.
Susan Graham’s fine mezzo-Margeurite, is detached and roaming through the rooms of an shockingly unimpressive estate, she triumphs in her own zone.

Both Ms. Graham and Mr. Giordani are unengaged in their key love scene, tentative, even vocally ackward. In contrast Graham’s live feed spectral image was being engulfed in flames in back of her but her voice was a lazar beam of ariatic control.

Choreography isn’t usually front and center in opera, but co-choreographers Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier’s dances are just too campy to ignore. Garrotted soldiers descend on the laps of seated women auditioning for Martha Graham’s Lamentation. Later, The devil summons his Solid Gold ballerinas for some epileptic arabesques and scrambled twirling. And then there are those harnessed demons flying in ala Cirque du Soleil. Buff and crowd pleasing.

Even with some tech problems, Lepage’s direction is surprisingly cohesive thanks to the designs concept. Berlioz created his own symphonic montage of scenes and Holger Forterer and Boris Firquet’s video and image designs, as well as Sonoyo Nishikawa’s vivid lighting, provide inventive narrative threads.

Hell is realized, through simple stagecraft and mighty music, with a phalanx of naked men, singing Berlioz’s devil-speak, with an orchestra boiling over. For heaven, Maestro Levine is so committed to reach musical beautification for Margaurite’s ascension, that he seems possessed.
It would be interesting to hear this orchestra play Faust where all of the flesh and the devil remained in the pit.

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