It seems the press isn't prepared to say it, but I will: the new Robert Lepage production of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust is boring. Soporific, empty -- and, least forgivably, literal. The musical preparation and delivery of James Levine, Donald Palumbo and his chorus, Susan Graham, John Relyea, and Marcello Giordani go for naught in a presentation that in fact has less impact than a concert performance.
One cannot just pass the buck to Berlioz himself. Yes, he wrote not an opera but a series of scenes connected (if at all) by dream logic, but within each bit his idiosyncratic musical dramaturgy holds as characters emerge seriatim from the illogic into song. But here drama is entirely suppressed by a production overlay that flattens the human element twice over: literally, first, by confining all action to a basically two-dimensional grid of shallow stacked boxes that's the whole stage set; and then by distraction, hiding and dissolving the figures amid and into ever-changing CGI before and behind them. The effect is more of dolls in a cutaway dollhouse than of men and women locked up with fate, and though this is true to a part of the Berlioz piece, it's that very part that kept the thing offstage all those years. Damnation needs its drama spotlit in the opera house, not hidden.
What we get, instead, is the opposite of drama's human urgency: the empty tranquilization of banal (if pretty) images on screens. Again, even onscreen there is neither actual perspective (after an admittedly memorable underwater light shot in the first part) nor the expansive play of allusion and perspective a more imagined visual accompaniment would provide. Birds, water, grass, a house, withering trees, horses, hellfire -- as complement to the human drama, this flat world would be fine, but as substitute it's thin stuff indeed. And the one human touch -- having Susan Graham (cursed, it seems, to get directors who try to make her disappear) actually climb a ladder at the end -- is far more interesting and effective than the much-noticed trick of turning her into wallpaper for her last solo. That's no coincidence: opera depends on the scale and force of the human figure as much as it does on the scale and force of the unamplified human voice.
It is odd indeed that Peter Gelb, who's much expounded on the importance of drama and theatricality in opera, should be entrusting his most notable new production -- the Ring -- to a man whose work here shows little, if any, interest in such things.
UPDATE (11/17): Intermezzo has photos -- and similar thoughts. I should mention that the one part of the production I did like was Karin Erskine's old-school costuming, particularly the outrageously retro devil outfit and hat.