Another Met disappointment, with ramifications
Friday was not a good day for opera in New York. First, the news broke of Gerard Mortier's withdrawal from the City Opera. And that night came the second straight disappointing new production from Peter Gelb at the Met this season (after "Doctor Atomic").
Maybe Robert Lepage's production of Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust" had been planned under the Joe Volpe regime, but Gelb certainly backed it enthusiastically. Advance publicity suggested it was a trial run of the forthcoming (starting in 2010-11) Lepage staging of Wagner's "Ring," the highest profile artistic decision Gelb has made so far.
I have long admired Lepage's breadth and invention, from his own fabuous original theater pieces to his opera productions to his staging of a Peter Gabriel arena rock concert tour. Gelb had a tricky decision to make, replacing the impossibly dowdy yet fanatically beloved Otto Schenk "traditional" "Ring." It would be trashed were it Euro-trash. Any of the usual suspects (Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars, even Julie Taymor, who may undertake a Met "Parsifal") would look, somehow, second hand. Lepage seemed a brilliant solution.
Well, not if his "Damnation" is really a template for his "Ring." The set (attributed to Carl Fillion, but Lepage clearly determined the overall look) offered stark symmetry, with three balconies fronting a projection screen broken rigorously into rectangles. The ubiquitous video projections were technically adept and often striking. But the formal rigidity of the screen -- a friend likened it to a photo contact sheet -- proved numbing.
And when Lepage had an idea, like having live solidiers marching off to war straight up the grid and then being lowered down dead like hunks of meat, it sometimes worked well in a gimmicky sort of way the first time and lost all impact when repeated over and over. Lepage's dramatic ideas were dazzling one-shots, but he couldn't sustain them over an entire musical number, let alone the entire score.
The grid/screen layout precluded any use of the Met's vast stage depth, which was just a silly waste. The vaunted interactivity, whereby singers supposedly triggered variations in the projections so that no one performance was quite like another, fell hopelessly flat. Supposed interactivity, as I discovered ruefully when I presented Tod Machover's flamboyantly hyped "Brain Opera" at the first Lincoln Center Festival in 1996, usually falls flat, either because it isn't really interactive or because the audience has no way of knowing what's flexible and what's fixed.
Many of the techniques and effects deployed here had been pioneered in Lepage's Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show, "KA," but as someone who actually saw that endeavor, I can attest that "KA" is way more spectacular than this "Damnation." Cheerfully brainless, like all Cirque shows, but the most dazzling piece of Vegas stagecraft ever. That's because Lepage could oversee the construction of elaborate stage machiney that, once installed, could stay in place for years. Giant platforms tilted and spun this way and that, along with all the acrobatics and projections. The Met is a repertory house; productions must be broken down and reassembled within hours. So a lot of the special effects, like those soldiers marching boldly up the grid, looked tentative next to those in "KA."
Worse, Lepage showed little aptitude for the direction of actors, even with the projections allowing for filmic closeups. Admittedly, as a concert piece that Berlioz never got around to adapting for staged perforrmance, there isn't much interaction. But everything looked static and stiff. Marcello Giordani, whom James Levine clearly likes but who is a stick on stage and not a very dulcet tenor to start with, even if he does manage mostly to emit the notes, looked lost. Susan Graham, earnest and intelligent but not in her best voice, made a staid Marguerite (Giordani insisted on calling her the Italinate "Margarita"). John Relyea had stock-devil flair but rather too light-weight a bass.
Levine hardly redeemed the musical performance. I passed programs at Boston Symphony matinees during Charles Munch's final four years as music director there. He was a consummate Berliozian, and did the big pieces all the time, including a couple of "Damnations," which he also of course recorded. Levine elicts the occasional lovely lyrical effect. But he is not a driving exciting conductor in the Bernstein, Gergiev or (in Berlioz especially) Munch mold.
Was the evening a total waste? No. Some of the video effects, in particular the Muybridgian galopping silhouette horses with puppet cut-out Fausts and Mephistopheleses, was very good. But for the "Ring," let's hope Lepage opens up the stage, pays attention to the characters and subsumes his trickery into the service of the (music) drama. He has proven talent. But if he repeats the effects of this "Damnation" too slavishly, we'll be in for a long, frustrating "Ring" indeed.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.
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