Who wants to drag off to see another lame attempt to stage when, like many of Berlioz’s quixotic works, this opus (it’s not opera or symphony or oratorio— call it a concert piece for stage) is impossibly stupendous. Besides a typically immense chorus and orchestra, it has flying men and demons, appearing and dissolving visions, a horseback ride to the flaming inferno, and a finale up in heaven. It was performed only twice in Berlioz’s lifetime, and its intricate, sensuous score today is typically confined to concert performance. The Metropolitan Opera hadn’t staged it for a century, but in November its technology triumphantly caught up to the fantasy in a stunning production.
Canadian Robert Lepage, who directed it at Japan’s Saito Kinen Festival and the Paris Opera, is a genius. So is his team, Ex Machina, judging by its pioneering Met debut. A program note by Lepage (who created Cirque du Soleil’s ) says acting companies have wrestled with the Faust legend since 1587, but it dauntingly “asks the stage director to be both devil and alchemist”.
Double projections and movement-generated scenic effects clarified the plot, though sometimes they upstaged the performers. The set, like a cross-section of a 24-room house, made use of the Met stage’s height, and the audience as the fourth wall saw all sections, as they shifted from book-lined library carrels to crowded tavern rooms and private balconies. The partitions between them briefly became giant crucifixes with hanging Christs that swung rapidly out of sight at the entrance of Mephisto in his Palin-red leather outfit.
Soldiers marched not only backwards through the divided sections but also vertically up the dividers, falling back to the ground dead into the arms of grieving girlfriends in billowing gowns. To Mephisto’s lullaby ‘Le Lac Etend Ses Flots’, Faust cavorted dreamily under water with white-clad ballet dancers who later became will-o-the-wisps. Beetle-like monsters crawled up the walls at the approach to hell.
At the Met Marcello Giordani, a strong, stolid Faust, knocked phrases across the footlights and nailed his high C-sharps without the strain apparent in the high-definition movie house screening. When Susan Graham, as the plum-toned Marguerite, sang of her devilspawned ardor for Faust, her face was projected behind her, huge and surrounded by flames.
The Devil didn’t preach to the masses at Yankee Stadium or give sermons on the mount. He worked us one at a time, with care—we were Marguerite to his Faust: his seductive attention was our downfall. As the clear-voiced resonant Mephisto, John Relyea relished his power; his sweeping gestures and sparkling eyes made his customized service irresistible.
James Levine sat on the conductor’s chair with one cheek, appearing to do no more than casually eye the score and beat time, but he was the production’s underpinning and driving force. In interviews at the movie theater screening, singers couldn’t stop praising his support and detailed work, and all aspects of the opera’s ample chorus parts were about as good as it gets.
This Faust will inform and illuminate future Met productions. Lepage is to direct a Ring cycle beginning in 2010. Do what you must to see the live version. LESLIE KANDELL March/April 2009
This Faust will inform and illuminate future Met productions. Lepage is to direct a Ring cycle beginning in 2010. Do what you must to see the live version.