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“Damnation” of the Met Opera: Director Threatens to Make Three-Ring Circus of the “Ring” UPDATED

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Robert Lepage, director of Metropolitan Opera’s “The Damnation of Faust”

I am a disgruntled survivor of the tacky, ugly and gratuitously busy staging of “The Damnation of Faust” that opened last night at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s bad enough to inflict such shallow shenanigans on the lush, lyrical score of a Berlioz opera-house rarity, but I’m horrified by the prospect, reported on Friday by Daniel Wakin in the NY Times, that they’re planning to give the same director’s techno-drecko treatment to opera’s holy grail, Wagner‘s Ring Cycle.

I’m in favor of innovative productions. But I think the Met should consider engaging professional artists (as the Met tried decades ago, with great success, when it worked with David Hockney) to reimagine its sets. Instead, it chose Cirque du Soleil’s director for its Las Vegas production, Robert Lepage (who also has theatrical and operatic productions to his credit). In this projection-happy staging, the JumboTron images of the protagonists floundering underwater brought to mind how much better this would have been pulled off by Bill Viola.

A few memories I’d like to forget: hyperactive soldiers, endlessly marching backwards and, later, falling from great heights into damsels’ laps, only to rise again on pulleys (and then fall down again, and then rise again, and then…); poorly choreographed dance sequences; a final scene where the hapless but undaunted mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was made to climb up to Heaven on a very high, very flimsy-looking, shaky ladder, cautiously feeling her way up each rung in a flowing gown that brushed the top of her slippers. I feared for her life too much to pay any attention to the concluding music.

The only way to enjoy the evening was to stop looking at the stage and focus all attention on the superb James Levine, who, despite his recent health problems, conducted with an energy that put to shame the young Alan Gilbert, whom I had witnessed at the Met two weeks ago, conducting John Adams‘ “Doctor Atomic” with his head buried in the score.

Aside from doing a disservice to the music, the production seemed heedless of the viewing experience of those of us sitting higher than the orchestra. From my dress-circle box (two levels below the top boxes), there were long stretches where the heads and upper torsos of cast members populating the upper tier of the set were completely cut off from view. The mirrored back wall, as seen from my seat on the side, reflected a frontal view of the brilliantly illuminated conductor in action, which was an unintended but welcome diversion from the onstage action.

And every time there was a “silence,” I heard a very loud hum that appeared to be coming from the projection equipment at the upper reaches of the auditorium.

My memo to the Met:

Leave the Otto Schenk production of the “Ring” alone for now. Rethink who should be chosen to rethink it.

UPDATE: Veteran music critic John Rockwell gives his take on the production. Great minds think alike.

an ArtsJournal blog