Hector Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust, Metropolitan Opera, November 7, 2008

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Susan Graham as Marguerite in LaSusan Graham as Marguerite in Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust." Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera (Click image to see a slideshow of the production.)

Susan Graham as Marguerite in LaSusan Graham as Marguerite in Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust." Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera (Click image to see a slideshow of the production.)

Faust – Marcello Giordani
Marguerite – Susan Graham
Méphistophélès – John Relyea
Brander – Patrick Carfizzi

Conductor – James Levine

Production – Robert Lepage [Debut]
Associate Director – Neilson Vignola [Debut]
Set Designer – Carl Fillion.[Debut]
Costume Designer – Karin Erskine [Debut]
Lighting Designer – Sonoyo Nishikawa [Debut]
Interactive Video Designer – Holger Förterer [Debut]
Image Designer – Boris Firquet [Debut]
Choreographer – Johanne Madore [Debut]
Choreographer – Alain Gauthier [Debut]

In Collaboration with Ex Machina

The production was reconceived for the Metropolitan Opera and is based on a co-production of the Saito Kinen Festival and the Opéra National de Paris.

In reviewing the Boston Symphony’s performances of Les Troyens earlier this year, I observed that, of the live performances I’d seen, the concert performances were more rewarding that the staged productions. And Les Troyens is a work which Berlioz actually conceived for the stage. La Damnation de Faust grew from a series of eight scenes taken from the nineteen-year-old Gérard de Nerval’s translation, which Berlioz set in a burst of enthusiasm, publishing it as his Opus 1 in 1829. However public and personal dissatisfaction drove him to withdraw it and to destroy as many copies as he could. He returned to the subject only in 1845, reusing a few numbers from his early material, but, adding substantial choral parts, he crafted a much grander and more dramatic work. Still, in this version his treatment of the narrative remained fragmentary, and he seemed to feel no need to follow the geographical and temporal conventions required by the stage. Berlioz originally called it an “opéra de concert,” but he later changed its designation to “légende dramatique,” after the idea of refashioning the work as an opera came to him in response to an abortive plan to stage it in London. He never pursued it further. Perhaps it was too deeply rooted in his own personal impressions for him to revise into a full-blown theatrical piece. Unlike Les Troyens, La Damnation de Faust is no newcomer to audiences, and it has been staged every now and then, but it is best known in concert performances. (Boston, of course, has been especially fortunate in this respect, having enjoyed the services of Monteux, Munch, Martinon, Ozawa, and Levine.)

For this reason, La Damnation de Faust is especially tempting material for any director eager to experiment with dramaturgy or design. Since there is no established stage tradition and the work has proven inherently intractable on the stage, audiences are more inclined to approach it with an open mind. Fewer patrons will walk out in disgust, like our own Huntley Dent at Robert Lepage’s production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Covent Garden this past summer. Unlike the Rake, Berlioz’ thoroughly French, intensely personal, even eccentric treatment of Nerval’s translation is almost a tabula rasa for that renowned theatrical jack-of-all-trades. The new production at the Met, which first saw light in Japan in 1999, is, typically for Lepage, the fruit of long-term collaborative work through his production company, Ex Machina of Québec City. Peter Gelb saw the production in evolved form at the Bastille, and approached Lepage to bring to the Met, offering him additional funds to realize the digital components of the production in the most advanced possible way. Cutting-edge technology is, in fact, the trademark of Ex Machina’s multimedia approach to theater, not to mention the strapping young aerobats who dance—if that is the word for it—suspended from the rafters by cables. I noticed that The Big Apple Circus was already open next door. What we saw on the stage of the Met Friday evening made their efforts look like pretty tame stuff. My only reservation is that Robert Lepage and his associates may have done the same for Berlioz’ opéra de concert.

Video projections of all sorts have been a part of theater for quite a few years now, and when we see digital animations so seamlessly worked into an edgy, but most definitely mainstream production like Rupert Goold’s Macbeth, it is obvious that the medium is mature. It is no longer authorized to feel any bit subversive in attending a performance of the kind. A production like Lepage’s Faust is long overdue at the Met, and one can well ask whether M. Lepage is enlivening the Met, or is the Met conferring its own very serious brand of respectability on Lepage, not that he isn’t very securely established on his own turf, which includes Japan and the Bastille, but only now the Metropolitan Opera, where his next step is to direct a new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a rather more difficult task, I’d say. Otto Schenk’s 1989 production for the Met has held a place dear to Wagnerians around the world as the last of the “traditional” productions in the major opera houses. Many of them will miss it, and they are a far more vocal than the much larger group who have never seen a staged Damnation de Faust. The show was hugely entertaining and offered a valid and compelling interpretation of the work, which was based on a researched and thought-through premise. I can’t wait to see it again. On the other hand, I most definitely had the impression that I was witnessing two events which were happening simultaneously: a solid, mostly excellent performance of Berlioz’ opéra de concert and an electronic stage extravaganza, neither of which necessarily supported the other.

The stage design consisted of a transformable grid recalling the steel frame of an apartment building, which formed the background of the shallow stage space which is now a commonplace in contemporary drama and opera. However, within the squares of this architectural grid, we were able to see digital clouds of a Robert Burke-like realism, and flocks of swooping birds, also digital, recalling a familiar motif, used a few years ago to splendid effect by Treliński and Kudlička in their Warsaw production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame…and a good many of the other things there are to see in the world and in our minds, that is, in cinema, which is Lepage’s expressed aesthetic model. (He has had extensive experience in that medium as well.) Narrow slots appear at the bottom and top of the grid to reveal partial friezes of human activity: revelers in a tavern, praying folk in church, the damned in hell, the blessed in Heaven…humanity in general, in other words. Among the projected “sets” the water effects were quite beautiful, and the animated landscape of gnarled trees, which swayed and writhed through Faust’s Invocation of Nature and his ensuing exchange with Mephistopheles (Part IV, scene xvii).

Within the blocks we also see human dancers, as well as digitized shadows, picked up in real time and distorted in loose clouds resembling charcoal smears; underwater effects, and Muybridge-like animations of Faust and Mephistopheles on horseback, to name only a few. Over the grid, Lepage’s trademark aerobats defy gravity, swinging, twisting, dancing, and simply walking up and down the wall. (Yes, there was too much of it.) Amidst all the fun the most impressive feature of this vivid and imaginative, but—obviously—extremely pretentious production was the work of the corps de ballet and choreographers Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier, both of Montreal. The quirky, off-center movements of the dancers were to my mind truly original, and poetic in their effect. Of all the visual stimulants not available to the imagination, these ballets were the most valuable.

Should I even mention good taste? Berlioz himself had his limits, after all. During Faust’s religious interlude in Part I, no fewer than five crucified Jesuses appear, all impersonated by living “aerobats,” who produced an effect much creepier than any wax figures or the Sacro Monte of Varallo itself. You could go down to the biggest Bible park in the Heartland and only see the usual Christ and two thieves! (Lepage was most likely inspired by Philippoteaux’s gargantuan Cyclorama of Jerusalem in Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré near Québec City, which includes a scene of Calvary.) The meaning of this escapes me, but when they all scarper double time at Mephistopheles’ appearance onstage, I think I got it. And that was not the only place where there was some interpretive intervention on M. Lepage’s part. The soldiers who march off so jauntily to the Rákóczy March in Part I return far more worse for wear by the sight of them than the music implies. In fact they have suffered so excessively that they must be hauled up and down repeatedly on cables into the laps of their concerned women, where they assumed pietà-like attitudes. As sympathetic as one might be to Lepage’s message, Berlioz himself was no pacifist. He composed (or arranged) some rousing patriotic marches in his time, and he was in any case sympathetic to the cause of the Hungarian rebels, who inspired the Rákóczy March. It might be a good thing, if opera directors were compelled to belong to a union which docked them 10% every time they failed to resist the temptation to stick in some commendable message. I should add that the soldiers marched off in reverse, and that is also most definitely part of the message, but it hit home, seeing as we’ve all been watching soldiers march backwards for most of the past eight years.

But these touches are trivial in themselves. If in a work as important as this one a production lacks a real vision of what the creator wished to express, it all amounts to nothing more than gimmickry. However, I had the impression that M. Lepage was in fact guided by a serious conception of the work, and this was what gave it its substance, more than the elegance of the technology or the beauty of the visuals. Nerval and Berlioz’ response to his francisation of Goethe’s play stand at the core of Lepage’s vision. Berlioz benefited from a hardier psychic make-up than poor Nerval, and he was less inclined to spiritualism, but he was not immune to the emotionalism and the drugs which pushed the poet over the brink. Lepage presents Berlioz’ disjointed distillation of Faust as a dream, an hallucination, in which soldiers can march backwards and walk up walls, and Faust can perform his obeisance to his Savior with quintuple vision. For that matter Goethe’s “légende” can only be fully realized in such a dream world.

As I said, I enjoyed the show immensely and can’t wait to see it again, but it was undeniably pretentious and overbearing. Ironically, it was the music that carried the evening, above all the Torontoan bass John Relyea’s expansive, vividly sung and acted Mephistopheles (Relyea contrasted his strong, dark lower register and the sweeter, more lyrical region of his voice to great effect, not to mention his impressive stature, clad as he was in a red leather suit and peaked cap with two enormous feathers, M. Lepage’s hommage to the operatic kitsch of our grandfathers.), and Susan Graham’s full-voiced, but intimate and and deeply touching Marguerite, a classic example of the very best our time can offer. Marcello Giordani’s Faust was altogether something else. He is blessed with a fine, virile tenor through a good part of his range, but he concentrates so much on sound that he is unable to give form to Berlioz’ eloquent lines. It’s a question of style. What stirs us in Alfredo or Rodolfo is irrelevant to the elegant phrasing required of a Berliozian hero like Faust or especially Aeneas. My objections to Giordani’s Aeneas was based on national style, which, I venture, is more crucial in Berlioz’ Gluckian opera seria than in his Goethean choral drama, but at least he was in good voice back in the spring. In Faust, his approach to the role, which is as difficult dramatically as it is musically, was not only dull and wooden, he suffered from severe constriction and thinness in his upper register and occasional difficulties with pitch. However, to his credit, he came around in Part IV and delivered an impressive Invocation à la Nature and well-sung final scenes with Mephistopheles. Patrick Carfizzi did a fine character turn as Brander, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, crucial in this largely choral work, were at their magnificent best. Maestro Levine (who performed the work in concert with the BSO and the great Vinson Cole as Faust in the 2006-07 season) produced energetic and committed playing from the orchestra and all the flow and drama one could wish for, falling just short of the discipline and vision of his very best work.

In dramatic terms, although I was watching the stage effects with rapt interest, the opening scenes with the scholarly Faust eventually grew a trifle tedious, and Mephistopheles’ entrance came as a most welcome diversion. After the break, Susan Graham raised the level even higher and essentially carried the last two parts on her own shoulders, as excellent as was the work of most of her colleagues.

Theater is trickery of a dimension that can make cinema, with its flow of manufactured images, seem naive. Lepage, by claiming to find the aesthetic of cinema in Berlioz’ seemingly random but trenchantly insightful fragments, and hiding them under a vast technological apparatus, is trying to distract us into believing that it is a real opera, which most definitely it is not. (Even the Met program notes collude in the deception.) The result is distraction—a distraction belonging to our electronic, typically contemporary aesthetic of distraction and overload. What is especially fascinating is that Lepage could not overcome either the power of Berlioz’ mind or the power of music. There is no space here to discuss in sufficient detail either Berlioz’s odd dramatic structure or Lepage’s “cinematic” dramaturgy. Both are in their own way compelling subjects, but they are separate ones. One should exercise caution when theorizing proleptic manifestations of art forms or media before any hint of them existed. (Although I think Max Klinger is a striking example of an artist who would have made films, and great ones, if he’d been a decade or so younger.) Could Berlioz have imagined the art of Pastrone, Gance, Eisenstein, and Lang? Or is Lepage thinking more of the cinema of Resnais, Fellini, and Lester? Lepage presents us with a flat checkerboard of simultaneous actions, many of them “cropped” into a fragmentary vision, and so forth. My impression is that this constricts, but fails to overwhelm Berlioz’ even more idiosyncratic method, which can breathe, expand, and fully engulf us only in the setting Berlioz worked with in his time, as David Cairns has wisely observed: “The Damnation as we have it, and as Berlioz himself described it, is ‘an opera without décor or costumes.’ It is an opera of the mind’s eye performed on an ideal stage of the imagination, hardly realizable within a framework of live drama. We see it more vividly than any external visual medium could possibly depict it, except the cinema (which Berlioz seems at times to be anticipating). As John Warrack has said, ‘the pace is different, the arena impalpable, and too varied, the dramatic logic not that of the theatre but of an imagination able to free itself from physical surroundings and to course with the composer in a flash of thought from scene to scene or dwell upon a held mood of hilarity or tenderness or terror.’ In its fluidity and swift succession of moods, in the abruptness of its transitions from light to dark, from earthy brutality to the most translucent beauty, in its sense of heightened reality, it has the character of a dream.”*

Robert Lepage took this up as a challenge, and, if he did not entirely succeed, it is only because dramatic works of Berlioz are so deeply embedded in the imagination. As such they are unique treasures, and our present-day aesthetic of technology, distraction, and overload cannot change that. Still, Lepage’s Damnation de Faust is a step forward for the Met, a welcome and even inevitable one, if the Met’s conservatism is not to lapse too far into provincialism. It was smart of Peter Gelb to take it on, and he shows himself ahead of the country as a whole in rejoining the rest of the world. But what about the Ring? Robert Lepage is obviously intelligent enough to let Wagner have his say, but …? La Damnation de Faust was a triumph for Canada, in any case.

On the other hand, perhaps Lepage should have scratched Berlioz’s score altogether and commissioned a new one, leaving the old one to the stage of Symphony Hall, where it has been performed so beautifully so often.

*David Cairns, Berlioz, II, Servitude and Greatness, p. 357. For a true revolution in Berlioz reception, compare Davis’ 1973 recording with Monteux’s 1962 BBC performance. They are both good; they only come from different worlds.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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