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Friday, November 14, 2008

Opera Review: A Hi-tech Hell

La Damnation de Faust at the Met
by Paul Pelkonen
Tenor Marcello Giordani rides the road to hell as Fausts in
La Damnation de Faust. © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera's new computer-driven mounting of The Damnation of Faust is a showcase for the staging techniques of Robert Lepage, the Quebecois director best known for his work with Peter Gabriel and Cirque de Soleil. It is the Met's first attempt to stage this Berlioz work since 1906.

The action of this légende dramatique (the composer preferred this term to opera) is played out on a four-level set. At first, this appears to be a seemingly unremarkable series of catwalks and screens,. The digital displays are the palette upon which Mr. Lepage, (using advanced technology) attempts to recreate Berlioz's sound-world through visual means.
Soldiers march (backwards!) across the catwalks in front of digital backgrounds. Rappelling demons descend across the facades of houses. Dancers move in front of billowing curtains programmed to react to their movements. The lake scene features a huge, haunting image of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham's head, floating in the water--an idea which recalls the "Because" sequence in the recent Julie Taymor-directed Beatles movie Across The Universe.

The overall result is intriguing and can best be described as a partial success. That's not Mr. Lepage's fault. Simply put, the sound-world of the Damnation is so rich, detailed and varied that no production, not even a mostly digital one, could possibly hope to compete with the creative impetus behind this work. That said, the vocal performances in this production are of the highest caliber.

As Marguerite, Susan Graham was in exceptional form. She currently owns this part with her rich mezzo and emotive, intuitive acting. Her two big arias--the Song of the King of Thule and the Spinning Song, would have not just made Berlioz proud, but every other composer or writer who has taken a crack at the Faust legend. Amazing.

Marcello Giordani has a fine powerful voice which is not quite what it once was. He is a bit too Italianate in vocal styling for Berlioz, but that is forgivable, since he hits all the notes and can act. He is starting on the down-slope of his career but he is still a strong leading man--surprisingly effective in the early sections where Faust is a beaten old man.

The energy of Faust always picks up when the Devil makes his appearance. In a goofy red suit and cockade cap, Canadian baritone John Relyea had his coming-out party as Mephistopheles. (Silly though the outfit is, it's no match for the William Blake-inspired "muscle dragon" that Rene Pape was forced to wear in the Gounod Faust in 2005!) His performance is a resonant one, infused with the intelligence and comic timing one expects from this fine singer.

The Met Orchestra and Chorus maintain their deservedly high reputations here, tearing into the work's famous instrumental passages and final "Pandemonium" chorus with gusto. Close your eyes, sit back, and let the music work its devilish magic.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.