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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Opera Review: March to the Scaffold

The Met's Summer HD Festival repeats La Damnation de Faust.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
 Let's make a deal: Méphistophèles (John Relyea, left) offers advice to
Marcello Giordani's Faust in Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera.
Two key initiatives from the reign of current  Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb were on display at Lincoln Center Plaza on Thursday night. The first was the company's Live in HD program. The second: the company's recent association with director Robert Lepage. The occasion: a free outdoor screening of Mr. Lepage's 2008 production of La Damnation de Faust, the director's first and most successful show for the Met stage.

Hector Berlioz resisted the term "opera" for his version of Goethe's Faust, preferring the term "dramatic legend." In this broadcast (first shown on Nov. 22, 2008) this unique hybrid of staged opera and choral work is captured by the HD cameras to good effect. Mr. Lepage set Faust on a vast multi-leveled "digital scaffold" that allows for electronic scenery to interact with live opera singers and dancers. Even as the cameras pick up detail, often the editing choices sacrifice the overall stage picture for close-ups on the singers.

As with his later production of the Ring, Mr. Lepage used digital projections to create most of the visuals. But there's nothing "fake" about the backward parade of doomed soldiers symbolizing the futility of war. Some of the visual effects (the crucified dancers in the church scene, the devils skittering up the walls of Marguerite's house) are hokey, while others (the Damnation scene where the presence of Mephistopheles literally causes trees to die) are most effective. (After Faust signs the contract, his presence kills the plant life as well.)

This recording preserves Marcello Giordani's Faust at its height with the Italian tenor singing Berlioz' lines with power and sweetness of tone. Although the singer is left without much in the way of dramatic direction in his early monologues, he sings with genuine beauty and passion. He is somewhat vapid in his scenes with Mephistopheles (John Relyea) but improves when Susan Graham's Marguerite finally appears.

Mr. Relyea's turn as Méphistophèles is another strong point, helped by the close perspective that picks up subtleties in his portrayal of the Prince of Darkness. He is suave and potent, not so much the embodiment of darkness as the light and inspiration that a desperate Faust is seeking. Mr. Relyea is absolutely magical in the build-up to the Dance of the Sylphs, lulling Faust to sleep with plush, dark tone. The big dramatic numbers (the "Song of the Flea," the Damnation scene itself) leap off the screen, helped by kinetic rhythmic conducting from James Levine.

Just as Old Scratch owns Faust's wayward soul, Susan Graham has owned the role of Marguerite for much of the past decade. She captures the mix of innocence and worldly knowledge in the two big arias, singing "L'amour l'ardente flamme" with a warm, rich tone that is tinged with the right hint of despair. She becomes the soul of this complicated work, proving that dramatic interpretation trumps high-tech visuals--even when presenting dramatic legends.

The other key part of the Met's operatic legacy preserved here is the performance by a robust James Levine in the orchestral pit. The conductor's gift for Berlioz is most apparent, although one wishes for less indulgent tempos in some of the slower parts of the score. Both orchesta ad chorus are up to the company's always-high standard. although the decision to relocate the choristers to the base of the giant scaffolding seems to reduce their role in the drama.

Watch an excerpt from La damnation de Faust here. 
All video content © The Metropolitan Opera.

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