Canadian jack-of-all-arts Robert Lepage has already established his cultural cred with feature films, stage productions, a Cirque du Soleil outing and operas in Japan and Europe. His Metropolitan Opera debut with Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust” has been highly anticipated, particularly by New Yorkers waiting to see how it may foreshadow the upcoming Ring cycle Lepage will direct for the Met, starting in the 2010-11 season. If this is any indication, Wagner will be in very good hands.
With this production — developed at Japan’s Saito Kinen Festival and at the Opera National de Paris — Met general manager Peter Gelb delivers the ideal match of opera and director. In actuality, Berlioz’s work was never really intended to be a staged opera — the composer himself dubbed it “A Dramatic Legend in Four Parts,” and at its 1846 premiere, it was presented in concert form, as a kind of oratorio.
With his quicksilver, almost phantasmagorical scene structure — there are some 20 changes of locale during the course of the piece — Berlioz anticipated cinema, and Lepage honors him with a staging of cinematic fluidity. Designed by Neilson Vignola, the basic set structure is a five-level metal scaffold divided into 24 cubicles, each of which comes equipped with screens both in front and behind. On these screens Lepage projects a constantly changing set of images appropriate to each scene — heavenly clouds scudding across the sky; the flames of hell; a rippling, moonlit lake; a leafy forest transitioning from autumn to winter.
As if by magic, the images often respond to the performers’ movements and even the pitches of the singers and orchestra. It’s a revolutionary technique, and one which could prove distracting in the wrong hands. But by honoring Berlioz’s intentions, Lepage puts himself at the service of the drama. His singers and dancers — clad in Karin Erskine’s opulent Goethe-era costumes — interact on a series of catwalks, with acrobats frequently flying up and down, in and out, on wires. None of this seems extraneous — it’s all directly tied in to the story.
Lepage has posed himself a huge challenge with this technique, and there were a few glitches on opening night. At one point, three rows of screens remained blank for several minutes, resulting in an incomplete image, and later, a card of system information was inadvertently projected. The finale was compromised when one of the screens, meant to be slid aside, remained stuck in place, blocking the audience’s view of a large group of choristers. Such kinks will unoubtedly be corrected in forthcoming performances.
“La Damnation de Faust” contains numerous orchestral interludes, and Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier fill them with arresting choreography performed by a superbly-attuned corps of dancers working within a very limited space. Opera choreography can often seem like uninspired time-filling, but Madore and Gauthier have created super-charged work here that never releases its grip on the audience.
Aside from its extensive choral passages, “Faust” has three major solo roles plus one thankless 90-second bit part of a student who sings a drinking song, ably enough performed here by Patrick Carfizzi.
Singing Faust, Marcello Giordani is once again inexplicably cast by the Met in a French role to which he is unsuited. This leather-lunged Italian tries hard — too hard — but can summon neither the vocal grace nor the elegance required. His French is heavily accented, his softer singing sounds patchily produced, and he has trouble at both ends of his range — the bottom weak and breathy; the top squally as an infant in need of a diaper change.
As Mephistopheles, John Relyea has fun with his role but does not completely inhabit it yet; that should come with repeated performances. He has the right midnight-black basso for the part, but his diction emerges somewhat cloudy, and he lacks the suavity or elan Berlioz calls for.
The most satisfying performer, not surprisingly, is Susan Graham, long known as a French-repertoire specialist. Though her part as Faust’s discarded lover Marguerite is not a large one, she is riveting onstage, and her rich lyric mezzo finds every expressive nuance without ever sounding forced. As always, this native of Roswell, New Mexico sings French as clearly as a Parisian.
James Levine conducts Berlioz’s sumptuous score, seemingly with a lighting bolt instead of a baton. His is the most incisive, thrilling and precise interpretation of this work conceivable, and the Met orchestra has never sounded better.