Wookiee Hut Theatre Reviews presents:
La Damnation de Faust
Review by Diana, MaceVindaloo, Bunchbox, GornPod, FengShui

Composer: Hector Berlioz

Libretto: Almire Gandonnière and Hector Berlioz

Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Conductor: James Conlon

Production: Robert LePage

Set Design: Carl Fillion

Costume Design: Karin Erskine

Lighting: Sonoyo Nishikawa

Stage Direction: Donald Palumbo

Choreography: Johanne Madore and Alain Gautier

Video Engineer, Design: Ex Machina — Holger Förterer and Boris Firquet

Starring: Ramon Vargas (Dr. Faust); Ildar Abdrazakov (Mephistopheles); Olga Borodina (Marguerite)

Rating: Imperial Star Destroyer — crowd pleaser

Hector Berlioz, by his own admission, never thought his opera belonged in a theatre. The music is often performed in concert, but the story is too peripatetic and jumpy by conventional standards to stage in the more literal world of opera.

The story is a look into the elderly Dr. Faust's mind, close to death, filled with longing and regrets. It's been described as a sort of hallucination, and very difficult to stage — even considering that as a world, we've gone through psychedelia many times, induced by drugs, alcohol, disease, and insanity. In addition, it's sung in French, so the usual textures of music and lyrics usually heard in Italian and German are very different. It's important to have a good feeling for French styles and language when producing this tough but musically gorgeous opera. It should be a rewarding experience!

Robert LePage and his company Ex Machina, who have created notable interactive video sets for Cirque du Soleil, is using Faust as a big experiment, as he'll be undertaking Wagner's Ring Cycle using similar ideas and technologies in future seasons at the Metropolitan Opera.

What's so special? The stage is basically constructed of two layers — a backdrop, and images in front of them, making the massive Met Opera stage into a sandwich of two-dimensional surfaces. The set did take advantage of the full height, and it was broken down into 16 boxes. These were reminiscent of old fashioned cinema movie spools, sometimes a zoetrope (that most old fashioned of animation machines), or the floors and windows of vintage building — and it's a bit ironic that this is production heavily reliant on modern digital video technology.

Images are projected on these boxes, reflecting the psychological and hallucinatory imaginings of the title character. Sounds and movements (similar to sensors to prevent border crossing by illegal aliens) affect how elements of the visuals respond. This is important to know, or the story is not easy to follow. How else do we end up underwater, or suddenly our old youthful selves?

There is even a Star Wars aspect of this production. Like the actors of our favorite space opera, the performers do not know what is going on behind them, and they do not see the projections. As far as they are concerned, they are on blank white gridded stage; they concentrate on their performance and not their interaction with the scenery.

The story is simple, based on Goethe, and just about everyone knows some version of it: old Dr. Faust reflects on the cynicism acquired in his life, and is about to poison himself, when the sound of church bells remind him of his youth and of a life of possibilities. The devil appears and offers to give him that youth and hope, and they embark through scenes in Dr. Faust's mind. He falls in love with Marguerite, a woman who is innocent yet erotic; she falls into danger, and Faust saves her by selling his soul to the devil.

Many people loved this ambitious, clever production. Maybe when it opened with James Levine conducting, and a not-miscast cast, it was fresh and interesting. The original cast features John Relyea as Mephistopheles, and his tall, lanky body and dark voice can indeed give an aura of seductive danger. Susan Graham was Marguerite, and she's been described as restrained and perfect. Marcello Giordani as Faust was described as uneven, but more than passionate.

Unfortunately, we saw the second season production, and all the leads seemed miscast. We are normally big fans of Ramon Vargas, but he seemed to "call it in," as if he lacked energy. Olga Borodina seemed frumpy (the mother, rather than the daughter) and sad, not innocent and erotic. When she climbed the ladder to enter heaven, she looked positively frightened; she is not a small woman and can sing intelligently and beautifully, and she can normally act, too. But in this production, her size was really apparently as she lumbered through the score.

The chorus and the dancers were really really wonderful. Aerialists were suspended from harnesses to play the crucified savior, hell-bent horseriders, soldiers, etc. The Met regularly utilized dancers from the ballet company next door, in beautifully choreographed scenes where they played major and minor roles. The scene where Mephistopheles orders his sprites to dance like they mean it, or else — wow!

The chorus showed up at the bottom of the 16-24 boxes, or behind the orchestra pit. Crowd scenes featured people who are normally cast as extras and who work for the Met in this capacity. They were all excellent, and really added texture and substance to the fanciful leaps of Dr. Faust's crazy mind.

Ex Machina had done a great job with the technology — creating software to record and change images and project them instantly, so that a boat on stage looked like it was on water, it's reflection wavering and glinting. We saw the ground move as soldiers walked along a horizontal wall of grass. Marguerite could sing about her soul on fire, and there it was, projected behind the singer, flames dancing. We wanted to love this clever production, we really did.

But overall, the effect was too flat, and it felt like a production to be placed in a smaller house, or for a PBS special. It felt like corners were being cut, using video instead of "real" sets. We wish we didn't feel that way, because we know this production was in no way cheap.

We understand that opera needs to find a larger, more youthful audience, and who will feed the love of opera in the future. But is making this like a flat television projection the way to go? Then again, it could be because of the aforementioned miscasting. People we spoke to adored the first season's cast. Perhaps we will watch it again with a different cast, next time.

In the days before in-your-seat subtitles, you had to "study" the opera, the story, the singers, etc. yourself, in order to extract maximum enjoyment. It's understandable that today's crowds may not do that; the stories told are not familiar, and most of the stars in this world are not familiar to most, either. But we found that this production also required study — knowing about video and infrared feeds, projections, sound technology, software development. Okay, maybe just "being here and experiencing" are enough for many people ... but not all. Certainly, it wasn't for any of us.

A final note: much was made of the Mephistopheles costume, and how ridiculously vinyl it looked, with the two feathers in the hat, and fur along his shoulders. Duh, those are the devil's horns, right (even if they did make him look somewhat like a big insect)? And hair represents an animal nature, perhaps ... or a nod to popular depictions of the devil as a hairy goat. But it kind of epitomizes the whole production — very clever and laudable, but somehow, it just wasn't enough to not be ... unsatisfying.

Still, go and see what the fuss is about, for yourself! And remember that all the images you are seeing are on a stage, with real singers, a real orchestra. Opera represents a great way to show the depth of human accomplishments in sound, art, engineering, etc. It's what makes us different from beasts and wannabes!

Production images from www.nytimes.com

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