NEW YORK - The Metropolitan Opera has never been known for its pluralism of ideas. Only the occasional rogue production (like
The Egyptian Helen
) has interrupted the deluxe Franco Zeffirelli conservatism at the core of its identity. So the mere fact that Robert Lepage - whose credits include directing Cirque de Soleil and Peter Gabriel concerts, and a role in the film
Jesus of Montreal
- was cheered for his production of Berlioz's
Damnation of Faust
had rich significance. It was good for Lepage, better for his forthcoming new production of the Ring Cycle at the Met, and great for the kind of forward-looking sensibility that's increasingly the signature of the Peter Gelb era.
The stage was loaded with technology that's not unusual in France but is just now finding its way into U.S. opera houses. When star mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang the great lament "D'amour l'ardente flame," about her fatal love for Faust, her image was projected onto a large video screen and, through infrared photography, appeared to be immolating. That was only one of several advances over Lepage's earlier
at the Paris Opera; another was a newer technology allowing colors of Maxfield Parrish richness.
Whether in his films (
) or performance-art pieces (
Needles and Opium
), Lepage loves the piquant omniscience of the cinematic overhead shot. To achieve that illusion in
, he employed a fleet of aerialists to walk up and down vertical screens, perpendicular to the stage floor, their footsteps causing ripples in the seaweed-like video imagery on the screen. When Faust is exulting in a video-projected woods, the trees lose their leaves as Mephistopheles appears.
Sexual intoxication is portrayed with Faust on a video screen floating languorously under water. And what would the Faust story be without a crucified Christ? Lepage had five. This was not fast-and-loose updating - Lepage employs classic iconography, such as Mephistopheles in the usual pheasant-feathered cap. The stage's 24 video compartments weren't just about devilish magic, but gave equal time to the world of bourgeois life, of soldiers with sabers and women in bonnets contemporary to Berlioz.
Here - as in Zeffirelli - the packaging could overwhelm the content. But Berlioz's
is too idiosyncratic, too contrary, to be encompassed. Never meant to be an opera, it's a loosely constructed series of scenes (some based on Goethe, some just tangential flights of imagination) with anti-theatrical quiet endings. In a 1980s Opera Company of Philadelphia staging, the final descent into hell portrayed a land of fat hairy men in red strapless evening gowns. The music shrugged it off.
No shrugging was needed here. The deeply insightful Lepage didn't stage
as much as he had a dialogue with it. Because the staging wasn't about making Berlioz more presentable, problems went unsolved: Faust, for one, spends much time witnessing action without being part of it, which was particularly apparent since tenor Marcello Giordani was a passive presence, and vocally ill at ease. As Mephistopheles, John Relyea held the stage well but lacked the needed vocal precision. Graham had it all: You knew you were in good hands by Phrase Two.
And though the Met orchestra and chorus under James Levine revealed this great Berlioz score with a saturated sound that few opera companies can muster, I'd bet - based on the rather better 1996 Carnegie Hall performance of
by the same forces - it'll be stronger come the Nov. 22 high-def movie theater simulcast.
Music by Hector Berlioz. Libretto by Almire Gandonniere. Conducted by James Levine, produced by Robert Lepage, designed by Carl Fillior. Performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, Friday, Nov. 18, 22, 25 and 29 and Dec. 4. Tickets: $15-$275. Information: 212-362-6000 or
Marcello Giordani . . .. . .. . . Faust
John Relyea . . . Mephistopheles
Susan Graham . . .. . . Marguerite