Saturday, November 15, 2008

Through a screen darkly

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.


  1. I guess I won't cancel my students this Saturday to go to this, then. Money saved. Money earned.

  2. A bit harsh. There isn't much narrative drama in the piece to begin with and I thought that Lapage's production was interesting. I had the same thought, however, as regards The Ring. What worked here will not work there.

  3. Thanks for the comments, but I think I may disagree with both of you. ;)

    Patty: as Intermezzo suggests, it may be more interesting as cinema than as opera, since the flatness is very much in that aesthetic tradition.

    Anonymous: you're right, there isn't much narrative drama to begin with, but to me this means that what there is of it needs more, not less emphasis. It's being sold as opera, after all.

  4. but to me this means that what there is of it needs more, not less emphasis.

    I don't know; here I think I appreciated that the director didn't try to make the piece more coherent via the addition of extra stage business for the singers, which is pretty much the only way to impose narrative coherence upon this thing.

  5. Well, I didn't necessarily want more coherence but more (or rather, some) drama. Show the singers when they're at it, and let them out of their 2-D trap... Part the waters, turn off the effects for a minute, allow us some human contrast to the technological hypnosis.

    When all is computerized and mechanized, nothing is at stake. (Even computer games these days rely on voice acting and realistic expressive close-ups for impact!) It's anti-theatrical.

  6. I might be totally talking out of my ass here, of the things I find fascinating (and frustrating) about the piece itself is how much of it is impersonal. I mean, there are all of these long orchestral interludes, or things that are big static choral movements. And the production was responsive to that.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.