Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Met On Demand: Damnation of Faust

First time I had seen this production, which I narrowly missed in house back in 2008. Robert LePage's video driven production of Berlioz' oratorio was a big hit at the time, soon to be remembered as the "good" LePage production after opinion polarized over the first installment of his Ring. (Though Tommasini dropped some good shade at the time: "To judge from the rousing ovation Mr. Lepage received, this innovative production looks to be a popular success...")

No doubt this is a more effective, immersive use of video than the subsequent Ring productions, which suffered from the fundamentally off-putting Machine set and a mismatch with the pace and dramatic constraints of the Ring. Berlioz' fantastical meditation on the Faust myth, never intended for the stage, makes much more sense as a purely sensual experience, and a perfect fit for the possibilities of LePage's visual approach.

All that said, and admitting the difficulty of judging this kind of production on video, I was surprised at how frequently I found myself blaming the effects for the difficulty the work had grounding itself and gathering any momentum. While succeeding with a more unified aesthetic approach to the video aspects, LePage hasn't figured out what makes dramatic sense here any better than the Ring. Too often the production drives you to distraction rather than enhancing your experience of Berlioz' work.

The work is a feast for orchestra and chorus, and the Met's crack forces, led by Levine, make this a memorable production even before the soloists are taken into account. Love the hell chorus section where the civilians of the Met chorus, no buff supernumeraries in sight, have to take off their shirts and sing about demons with mean looks on their faces for (what feels like) 20 minutes. Great chorus work and a weirdly unsettling piece of stagecraft.

Giordani sounds great in Faust's music, delivering the delightfully predictable old school vocal swagger that gets him the big bucks, though his acting chops are a shade blander than his colleagues when subjected to closeup HD. He keeps it together for most of the show, though when the going gets more strenuous he noticeably straddles the line between effortful-but-legit and wait-I-don't-think-this-sounds-good-anymore territory.

This is a sweet-spot role for Graham and she proves again why she is the consummate Live in HD professional, sounding great and hitting all her marks as Marguerite (note how long she holds her beatific face as she has to climb a ladder all the way to the rafters facing camera at the end). "Professional" of course can cut two ways, and if you have trouble getting excited about her, this will not change your mind.

John Relyea, still the man to beat when it comes to 19th century devil characters, frequently threatens to steal the show with his codpiece and the unflagging silky-manly sound he serves up for Berlioz' Mephistopheles.

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